CONNECTING THE DOTS:

HOW THE LATEST EEF PUPIL PREMIUM RESOURCES CAN SUPPORT SCHOOL LEADERS IN DEVELOPING A COHESIVE APPROACH TO SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT

The challenges and complexities of school leadership are multi-faceted and whilst many of us embrace the challenge and thrive off the diversity of the role, it can sometimes seem that is made over-complicated with policy or accountability measures. Sometimes, our understanding of what works, based on evidence, can feel fragile when faced with expectations from outside of our organisation. We know that our best bet for improving the attainment of disadvantaged students is to improve the quality of teaching in our classrooms and therefore by default, the teaching ability of our teachers. Yet when it comes to writing a pupil premium strategy, many of us can feel the pressure to demonstrate that we are offering a breadth of strategies, interventions and opportunities for students that may not always be the right solution for the problem we are trying to solve.

Over the past couple of years, here at Manchester Communication Research School, we have worked with a number of schools to support them to develop an evidence informed strategy and approach to pupil premium as part of the Making the Difference for Disadvantaged Learners. Every single school leader who participates in that programme is driven by the moral imperative to break the link between family income and educational attainment. Many of them know that high quality teaching and learning is our best chance of success. Yet when it comes to identifying the strategies and approaches in which to achieve this, very rarely do they identify implementing effective professional development as a key area of focus. Arguably, this is the most essential strand to any strategy if we align what we know about the evidence and the impact of high quality teaching and learning on pupil outcomes.

As Vice Principal for staff development, I am acutely aware that I hold a bias towards the power and potential of effective professional development. I unashamedly admit that I was really excited to see the publication of the EEF guidance report into Effective Professional Development and the associated evidence review; I have read it more times than I have read my favourite novel (and coming from an English teacher, you can assume that is a lot!) That aside, I still had a reservation that this might not be seen as an area for proper investment and focus. Why was that? Was it because the associated challenges of PD such as time, expertise, competing priorities meant that there were other approaches that could be seen to have more demonstrable impact quicker? Or was it because the links between PD and pupil outcomes and too complex and therefore vulnerable to break and fail? Is it too hard to connect the dots?

So, when I saw the publication of the latest EEF resources to support pupil premium, including the pupil premium menu evidence brief, imagine my delight when I saw the links to Effective PD referenced generously throughout the document. In line with the tiered model, the document helpfully signposts where schools can find reliable and robust evidence to support the development of a strand of the strategy. Not only does this help with the completion of the strategy document, it also makes the links much clearer and easier for leaders to see the importance of effective PD in mitigating the impact of disadvantage.

Now, we can see the relationship between what schools should focus on and how they can implement it with specific mechanisms to maximise the chance of success.  This document brings my two professional worlds together really neatly and I look forward to working with school leaders to overcome some of the previously mentioned challenges of PD to truly see the impact on pupil outcomes.

View from the Classroom: Developing An Evidence Informed Approach to Social Emotional Learning

Alex Hall and Nagina Bostan are both Evidence Leads in Education with Manchester Communication Research School and Year 6 teachers at Briscoe Lane Academy. Here they reflect on how evidence informed practice has influenced their own teaching.

As new Evidence Leads in Education, the importance of evidence informed practice has been at the forefront of our teaching within our classrooms. To give you a little context, we are Year 6 teachers, who work in a highly disadvantaged part of East Manchester at Briscoe Lane Academy which is part of Wise Owl Trust. We are 5 years into our careers, a proportion of which we have had to teach through a pandemic. No training or university degree could ever prepare us for the impact that COVID would have, not only on our pupils but also on ourselves. Initially we entered teaching naively thinking that attainment would be our central focus, however we quickly learnt that teaching encompasses far more than just attainment: progression, behaviour, SEND, family support, and most importantly social and emotional needs. We quickly realised that without having the social and emotional skillset needed to function in a classroom environment, attainment and progression became redundant. 

So what is SEL? Social and Emotional Learning is defined as, ‘the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions’ (CASEL). SEL is an umbrella term to describe the range of approaches that are being used in schools, which are aimed at enhancing both children and young people’s social and emotional skills. Social and Emotional Learning has always been central to our ethos at Wise Owl Trust and as a result of the pandemic, this has become even more prevalent. At Wise Owl Trust, we have broken this down into 2 key areas: Character Curriculum and Wise Owl Wellbeing. 

Our view throughout our teaching career has not changed – building good relationships are vital within a school setting. From there, every other skill can flourish. The EEF states, “SEL is especially important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and other vulnerable groups who on average have weaker SEL skills at all ages than their better off classmates.” The teaching and learning toolkit suggests that effective SEL can lead to learning gains of +4 months over the course of a year. So why is SEL a priority within our setting? The ethos that runs throughout our trust is that we prepare our children for the test of life and not a life of tests. We understand the importance of attainment and progress, however we believe that SEL can support this through focusing on the whole child and providing them with the skills to achieve lifelong well-being. Upon returning after the pandemic, we researched SEL and the evidence based practise available. A meta-analysis of SEL provision has shown an increase in academic abilities as well as SEL skills. It increased positive attitudes and positive social behaviours. 

So what does SEL look like in a classroom and school setting? Within our classrooms at Briscoe Lane Academy, we teach SEL explicitly within a safe, conducive environment. We are aware that some of our children, unlike others, do not possess these skills naturally due to the environment in which they are exposed to from such a young age. We use a range of strategies such as: Character Missions, where children are exposed to situations in which they must find solutions to problems using our seven character traits (Resilience, Empathy, Self-Awareness, Positivity, Excellence, Communication and Teamwork). For example, in year 5 we teach our children about Diverse Britain within which children learn to listen and respond respectfully to a wide range of people, including those whose traditions, beliefs and lifestyle are different to their own. For example, Mission 1 focuses on ‘What is my identity’ where children are asked to consider questions about respect and share their thoughts, ‘when I am treated with respect it feels. . . .’ and ‘when I am not treated with respect it feels. . . .’ Emphasis is placed on the equality of all in terms of human rights, the relationship between rights and responsibilities and the positive consequences of showing respect to others. All of these missions have a practical and a classroom based activity in which children discuss and share which of the 7 character traits they have focused on and displayed. These 7 traits are used as a shared language throughout school. From lunchtime organisers, admin staff to teachers: all staff use this shared language to communicate with not only our children but the wider community.

As role models for our children, we are constantly thinking about and are mindful of how we present ourselves and our emotions to the children. We make it clear that all emotions are valid and although feeling them may be uncomfortable, it is a natural part of life that we all experience. We teach our children that feeling is ok, but we need to be mindful of how we react as a result of these feelings as sometimes that is not always appropriate – we need to be able to regulate our responses to these emotions. We believe it is important to be open about our own emotions as this teaches children to share and express their own; we present the behaviours that we want our children to adopt. Our aim is to instil the awareness within our children for them to be able to recognise when they need to regulate their own emotions and provide them with the tools to do this successfully.

We have set dedicated time on all class timetables to explicitly teach SEL skills, we also embed SEL teaching across the curriculum, making links within a range of subjects such as reading, history and writing. We understand the importance as educators to pick up on teachable moments and make effective use of these; where SEL is more relevant and meaningful to children and therefore has the greatest impact. Alongside Character Missions, we have our bespoke Wise Owl Wellbeing (WOW) curriculum that teaches our children about mental health, wellbeing, relationships and acceptance. This programme has seen our children become more accepting of each other and provides them with the opportunity to build skills sequentially.

An example of how we see this in practice is teaching our children about mental wellbeing in Year 4, within which children learn that there are a range of emotions that all humans feel in relation to different experiences and situations. They learn to recognise that feelings can change over time and can range in intensity. For example, Mission 1 focuses on ‘Gaging the Temperature’ within which pupils are asked to create a graffiti wall of a range of feelings and emotions. Pupils discuss how we can all feel differently about different things and the things we can and cannot control in our day to day life can impact our emotions. Pupils create a list of synonyms for the root emotion word and rank these on a scale of intensity to explore how feelings can build up or suddenly burst. Children learn to understand the importance of being able to describe their feelings as it helps them to manage their emotions and helps others to support them. These skills are further built upon in consecutive missions.

Although we teach SEL explicitly, we also provide some children with additional interventions to support them further in an area in which they struggle with. Nurture is highly important within our school alongside consistency. We believe that all children should be able to access an education and SEL falls in line with this; without these skills children struggle to cope in a classroom environment which impacts their learning. We strongly believe that we need to instil in our children the skills needed to face the social demands of the world today and cope successfully with any potential challenges they may come across. 

Developing a Text Rich Secondary Science Curriculum

Increased curiosity, building resilience, and improved literacy skills – Those were the aims of our text rich Science curriculum.

A key focus for us at Manchester Communication Academy, is to improve literacy skills in our students. In line with guidance report from the EEF on Improving Secondary Literacy, our school does not see literacy as a focus just for the English department but a focus for the whole school which means each department needs to develop ways to support this strategy. So how do we improve literacy skills for students through our science curriculum alongside teaching such a large volume of scientific theories and skills? We had to think of literacy strategies that link directly to the curriculum alongside hooking students, so they are invested in the curriculum and reading. This led us to the idea of teaching scientific concepts in year 9 through reading a science based fiction book.

Student curiosity about Space provides a hook for learning so we tapped into this by selecting the text ‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir. Whilst a fiction book, the scientific content of the book is accurate and would allow us to link key concepts from the curriculum to scenarios faced by the astronaut in the book. For example, the character needs to find ways to grow food which we could link to photosynthesis and produce oxygen which we could link to the periodic table. The character in the book shows huge resilience to the situation they are faced with which is something we could discuss with our students to help them develop their own resilience. Building curiosity and existing subject knowledge into reading would help develop the student’s ability to read a complex text.

So, we had the idea but we now needed to make it a reality. First, we met in discipline teams to decide on the content of the scheme of learning. Then it was the work of three of us, a biologist, chemist and physicist, who had extra year 11 downtime to develop schemes of learning linked to the text. Regular discussion, feedback, and re-writing of schemes of learning ensued until we had a scheme of learning that we felt met the demands of curiosity, building resilience and aimed to improved student literacy. We had sought the advice of many of our English team to discover the best methods to read with students. We also spoke with drama teachers to help us develop our confidence in delivering reading strategies which introduced us to ‘mantle of the expert’. This was a great strategy to hook students in at the start of the scheme of learning.

As CPD for all science staff teaching the scheme of learning, an English specialist ran a training session to provide ideas and support for reading with students. This session was highly influential in helping science staff feel more confident in delivering the scheme of learning and our experience would support the recommendation from The EEF around ensuring teachers are specifically trained on how to teach reading. One good piece of advice was to not feel like you have to read the whole text especially with students who had very low reading ages. Evidence from the EEF guidance report suggests providing targeted vocabulary instruction into each subject curriculum so with students our focus could be on explicitly teaching the tier 2 and 3 vocabulary that was important to our curriculum and the development of Scientific knowledge.

Our science department has a great team spirit with everyone invested in wanting to improve the lives of students in the area by providing them with a broad and varied curriculum. However, when I handed out copies of The Martian and asked staff to read it over the summer and then plan lessons based on the book, I felt a certain level of concern. Would staff buy into it? What would happen if a member of staff didn’t read the book? These concerns were removed instantly when I did my first learning walk. I was moved listening to students reading through the book as a class, answering scientific questions using scenarios from the book to explain their answer. Watching teaching and learning develop around a text was inspiring. During one learning walk I observed a student lifting the pages of the book so he could read instead of listening to the teacher. When challenged he just said, ‘I really want to know what happens next.’ We have year 9 period 1 on a Friday and now have students turning up early for lessons so that they can do some extra reading of the text.

Staff have freedom as to how they feel they can best deliver the lessons to their group however most lessons start with reading an extract from the book followed by discussions linked to the outcomes of the lessons which provides the hook. Retrieval practice questions are then linked to scenarios from the book for example ‘Mark Watney needs to grow food on Mars, describe the conditions he needs to grow food.’. Although we are yet to see whether the text rich science curriculum in year 9 has impacted on reading ages, we do know that the curiosity around the text has supported our teaching of scientific content and skills. As teachers we have become increasingly skilled at teaching literacy allowing us to develop these strategies in other year groups. Is it something I wish to develop in other year groups? Of course!

‘Architects of the Extraordinary’

“I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught” Winston Churchill

This quotation from Churchill seemed particularly relevant this week, as teachers across the country began the new academic year with at least one INSET day. As teachers, it is hopefully fair to make the assumption that we appreciate and have enjoyed learning.  For many, it’s our passion and increasingly, teachers engage in their own professional learning throughout their career. However, INSET days as a learning opportunity are not always received or perceived as truly developmental or enriching. Why is that? Is it because at the start of the term our brains are occupied with the apprehension, possibly anxiety of those first few moments, hours, days in the classroom? Is it because after a restful summer, it is difficult to shift gears back into our learning zone? Or is it because our experience of INSET may not have offered us a chance to think hard or reflect in a way that moves our own professional practice forward?

Whatever the reason, it poses a challenge for those of us who lead on CPD in our schools and spend months designing, planning and preparing to deliver INSET days. How do we set the tone for the coming year and meet the learning needs of a large and diverse group of professionals? That’s not to say we don’t revel in the challenge!

At Manchester Communication Academy, we have two INSET days at the start of the new year before the students arrive. This year, our theme was ‘Architects of the Extraordinary’. We themed our table plans around extraordinary Mancunians; we shared stories of our extraordinary students who had achieved against the odds; we celebrated our extraordinary teams with a ‘Watch this Space’ showcase from each department, and we focused on how we become architects of the extraordinary through our application of some key principles of cognitive science and our understanding of memory. Teachers and TAs attended workshops that were bespoke to their own misconceptions and with deliberate practice and peer feedback, they hoped to create extraordinary lessons.

It’s important to say that as a school and a Research School we have spent a lot of staff training time on developing our understanding of how learning happens and cognitive science. At the beginning of our planning for these days, we were concerned that for our more experienced staff, they may see this as repetition and not a chance to learn something new. We hoped to address this with the inclusion of deliberate practice and the increase in complexity of knowledge and research. Also with the explicit acknowledgement that some of this we have covered before, but this doesn’t necessarily account for long term learning.

Evaluation of CPD is difficult and as a Research School, it is a big focus for us this year: How do we know that any training and development opportunities that we offer leads to a change in learning that leads to a change in practice that ultimately leads to an improvement of student outcomes? Evaluation of CPD is not about how good the lunch was or how much you liked the presenter-although these things are important!

So as a starting point, I asked some of our teachers to reflect on their learning from our INSET days. What new learning did they acquire? What misconceptions were corrected? What difference will this make? Some of these reflections are below:

  • I always thought having a good memory was something you either had or didn’t have – you were either good at recalling information or you weren’t. Paradoxically, it’s the act of recalling the information that gives you a ‘good memory’
  • It is important to make meaningful connections to new and existing information and make this connection explicit to move learning forward and create a deep and meaningful schema that will continue to grow and evolve.
  • Students often already know a large amount of the content they’re being taught (estimated by Nuthall to be  as much as 50%). This means that sometimes what we think is a link to prior knowledge is really repetition. Therefore, we must carefully consider how to build on the existing knowledge. What we sometimes mistake for good learning e.g quick responses, tasks being begun immediately etc. often indicates that the student doesn’t need to think hard enough to complete the work. Students should have to pause and deliberate.
  • Selecting the most important knowledge to practice is key when thinking about retrieval practice. This will allow the practice to be most effective and have the biggest impact. This is also key when we are thinking about students’ cognitive load on the working memory. We do not want this to be overloaded with information that won’t have a big impact. Think about the highest leverage knowledge (Most important). 

Alongside these, I asked some of the Teaching and Learning team to reflect on the process of designing and delivering effective professional development and the experience of being a delegate. These reflections included:

  •  It was great to be given time to refine an upcoming lesson during our ‘How learning happens’ breakout session. This allowed us to apply the training delivered to ensure our upcoming lesson effectively managed student’s attention effectively with clear and concise instructions. Using feedback, it changed my approach of delivering an aspect of this lesson to ensure the student’s attention was directed at the key information delivered.  
  • Multiple choice questions for staff are a great way to pull out nuances in misconceptions.
  • Pairing staff for practice from different subjects helps make the feedback less threatening – non-specialists are great proxies for novice students.

The next stage for evaluation is linked to our quality assurance processes-what do we see in the classroom and how does this impact on student learning? Watch this space.

Teaching and Professional Development during a pandemic

Louise Stubbs, ELE

Back in March 2020 when Boris Johnson announced that schools would be closing I never imagined that 15 months later I would be still delivering remote lessons to students who were having to isolate due to bubbles closing – come to think about it in March 2020 the only bubbles I thought about were in a well-deserved glass of prosecco on a Friday night!

Back then none of us really knew what we were doing and fortunately the EEF published their “Remote learning: Rapid Assessment” report in April 2020 (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Covid-19_Resources/Remote_learning_evidence_review/Remote_Learning_Rapid_Evidence_Assessment.pdf)  MCA held a google meet as soon as it was published led by Susie Fraser to discuss the findings.  Back then that was my first CPD through MCA and my first google meet!

That report was a breakthrough moment for me, firstly as a teacher battling against a lack of skills (my own and my students) the lack of devices and access to broadband for the children I was trying to teach and by my own issues with intermittent Wi-Fi the knowledge that “Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered” meant that children in my classes who were having to share a device and were unable to attend a live lesson would not be hindered; synchronous teaching was not the magic key! 

I also lead our SCITT programme and as all delivery for our ITTs went online I switched to zoom for their training and found that point 3 in the report “Peer interactions can provide motivation and improve learning outcomes” also rang true and that breakout rooms increased engagement and motivation in our ITT cohort. 

The pandemic has meant new challenges to overcome as an ELE and the practices I had embedded from attending that first CPD have become more refined.  I co-delivered the “Making the Difference to Disadvantaged Learners” (MDDL) programme to Lancashire Schools, this was entirely facilitated through zoom and my co-host and I have never met in person, how could we recreate the feeling of a face to face course through zoom?  All of us have spent much of the last year online and know how easy it is to be distracted.  I wouldn’t dream of answering emails in a real conference but have been known to during some online cpd.  Equally I have been a consumer of online cpd where a presenter has just shared a PowerPoint and talked at me when really asynchronous teaching would have been better as I could have watched the training when I had the time rather than a synchronous session in the middle of a hectic day.  One of the most important aspects of teacher cpd for me is always the networking, that lightbulb moment when you chat to another colleague who has a similar issue to you so how could we create that opportunity online?  

The MDDL programme did fully embrace the guidance for the EEF report about Remote Learning with live events and self -directed study.  We made full use of all that zoom had to offer – break out rooms with small groups, sometimes randomly generated, sometimes by focus and sometimes we named them by intervention so participants could self-select.  This maximised peer interaction and was an attempt to recreate the “coffee break” moments.  We used the chat function and polls.   Time is built into the programme for independent tasks to give delegates time for their planning and we were both on hand for any support.  Finally, the fifth consideration from the EEF “Different approaches to remote learning suit different tasks and types of content” was achieved as the programme uses video, quizzes, group tasks, independent tasks and we used woo-clap to capture the results of group work, this allowed more interaction from delegates and was a good way to share each groups ideas.   Planning for these sessions was again completed on zoom and we made sure we allocated plenty of time to plan it carefully to consider how we could create that face to face experience virtually.

I have come a long way from where I was in March 2020!  My IT skills are much improved.   My ITT trainees have mostly been online for their professional studies programme all year and next year we are planning a blended curriculum with some of the content still delivered online due to the flexibility this gives us.  The EEF guidance has been updated with practical examples of how schools have implemented the 5 key considerations to support schools further and the pandemic has given us an army of early career teachers who have spent three months of their training teaching remotely applying this evidence based practice, we have never had a more resilient and skilled set of new entrants to the profession. 

Unprecedented times but our response should be predictable.

Susie Fraser: Vice Principal and Director of Research School

We have all heard and seen the phrase ‘unprecedented times’ in recent months more than anyone could have predicted a little over a year ago. As with any phrase that is overused, it can become tinged with irony, sometimes humour, often losing its truest meaning and sentiment. Whilst that may still be the case in this instance, for many, this phrase will continue to be loaded with emotion, perhaps a sense of loss, fear and risk, anxiety and uncertainty. Add on top of that the use of the term ‘recovery’ in its many different contexts, not least in relation to our young people and their future, and it can feel a little like we are drowning, not waving. 

As school leaders, we have a responsibility to buffer and protect our young people from this deficit narrative. However, with the looming awareness of the changes and the uncertainty about what is ahead, not least for GCSE and A-Level students, we too can feel at a loss as to what to do to best respond.

At MCA, there are two fundamental ways in which we are tackling these challenges. Firstly, we will be actively and consciously avoiding any deficit language. Ours is not a recovery strategy but a growth strategy. This reflects the opportunity for growth for our students, our teachers, our leaders and our community. There is no limit to the potential for growth and we are all able to grow no matter what our experiences. Secondly, we will be informed by the evidence of what works, placing our best bets where the research is encouraging and using our knowledge of our context to know we are best placed to make evidence-informed decisions about what will be most beneficial for our students and our families. Whilst these times are indeed unprecedented, our response does not need to be. This is not the time for inventing brand new, shiny ideas or for coming up with a lengthy document that creates new and additional priorities. Good implementation relies on identifying fewer priorities that address the right problems. It can undoubtedly be tempting to identify long lists of interventions, actions and responses – I have grappled with that temptation myself – but it is important to come back to what we know works based on the reliable evidence we have. More support for effective Implementation can be found here: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Implementation/EEF_Implementation_Guidance_Report_2019.pdf

At MCA, we have revisited the Improving Behaviour in Schools guidance. Not because we are anticipating a decline in student behaviour but the first four recommendations are centred around culture and routines. Whilst leaders will be adjusting the curriculum, our guidance for teachers will be a reminder of the principles we have previously focused on. Those principles have been borne out of our understanding of the guidance report on Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning and informed by the dimensions in The Great Teaching Toolkit (https://www.greatteaching.com/). Teachers should be empowered in their knowledge that it is in their classrooms, as a result of the relationships they nurture and the decisions they make that they will give our students the best chance to grow.

Undoubtedly we are living in unprecedented times. However, our response as teachers and leaders should be quite predictable in that we make evidence-informed decisions and place our best bets for our individual students and communities.

Prioritising Priorities…

As we prepare for the full re-opening of schools on 8th March, Rebekah Hawthornthwaite shares her thoughts about the challenges we face and the comfort we can take in the familiar.

‘We NEED  to make reading and literacy a priority; it’s crucial to closing that growing disadvantage gap.’ 

‘Really, it’s all about curriculum: we NEED to prioritise adapting the curriculum when we return so that no students are missing core concepts.’ 

‘Assessment is key. We NEED to prioritise assessment when we return otherwise we won’t know how best to respond to the gaps that have emerged.’ 

‘We musn’t forget that our pupils with SEND are some of our most vulnerable. We NEED to prioritise practice that will support them when we return.’ 

‘Student and staff wellbeing is fragile at the moment. We NEED to prioritise supporting both to feel safe and comfortable coming back.’

Here is just a snapshot of the conversations I have had with my colleagues and with myself in recent weeks. Round and round we go, cataloguing all of the things we need to prioritise when we return. All of these things (and many more) are vitally important. But when does having so many priorities lead to actually having no priorities at all? And if this is happening at a senior leadership level, I can only imagine how overwhelming it seems to the middle leaders, teachers and support staff on the receiving end of our directives and closest to the action on the ground.

Back in September, rhetoric within the education community around returning to school was full of new-school-year optimism and plenty of wisdom was shared amongst us about how best to welcome students back and support their reintegration into classroom learning. Unfortunately, much of this wisdom had to be shelved when different regions found themselves returning to remote learning during local lockdowns, and then the third national lockdown saw us all back to teaching at our laptops into the new year. With everything that has happened in recent months – and with the prospect of schools opening to new routines of Covid testing and safety measures – it’s easy to feel swept up and overwhelmed. Amidst all of this, I have found it particularly helpful to return to the resources that I found useful back in September: the evidence-informed, common-sense voices reassuring me that we do know what we’re doing and it’s going to be ok.

One such example is this blog by Kirsten Mould. As the EEF’s Learning Behaviours specialist, a serving secondary school teacher, and a Head of Personalised Learning/Transition and SENCo, Kirsten brings invaluable experience and perspective. This has really helped me to define priorities as a senior leader for Teaching and Learning at a time when everything seems like a priority. Most helpfully, it has helped me to orientate the decision making with the students’ needs at the centre. 

This week’s announcement that all students will be returning to school on 8th March has certainly prompted a range of reactions from teachers, students, parents and the wider public. In what has been a most tumultuous year for education, it is unsurprising that people are experiencing a full range of emotions and considerations. Nevertheless, I am yet to come across a teacher or student who isn’t at least cautiously excited at the prospect of a return to the classroom. Whilst people might disagree about timings and logistics, it is testament to the resilience of our profession that teachers have emerged from this year with even more passion, creativity and determination to face the next stage of this journey. 

Best of luck to all schools opening their doors for a full return in the coming weeks!

Closing the Language Gap Remotely: Why oracy is more important than ever

Sarah Green is an ELE with Manchester Communication Academy and Assistant Headteacher at The Prospere Learning Trust. She is also a Voice21 National Oracy Leader. Here, she explores why oracy cannot wait until coronavirus is over and how schools can elevate its status through their remote learning curriculum.

What is oracy and why does it matter?

First coined by Andrew Wilkinson in 1965, the noun ‘oracy’ came into being to recognise the importance of spoken language development – the poor relation to reading and writing. Put simply, ‘Oracy is the ability to articulate ideas, develop understanding and engage with others through spoken language’ (Voice21, 2021). It is both a learning process and an outcome of learning.

The EEF’s evaluation of oral language interventions  shows that they have a consistently ‘positive impact’ on learning, including on oral language skills and reading comprehension, at a very low cost.  On average, pupils who participate in oral language interventions make approximately five months’ additional progress over the course of a year.

Voice 21 has run two pilot studies with the EEF on development of an ‘Oracy Framework’ (with the University of Cambridge) and an evaluation of their Oracy Improvement Programme  with 12 schools in 2017. Their Oracy Framework sets out the physical, linguistic, cognitive and socio-emotional oracy skills required by pupils for education and life; it is the foundation in which their oracy curriculum is built upon.

We know that communication and language provide the foundations for learning, thinking, and wellbeing. But, we also know that the complex relationship between oral language, reading, and writing can contribute to the cause and widening of gaps between from disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers as they move through school (Breadmore, H. L., Vardy, E. J., Cunningham, A. J., Kwok, R. K. W. and Carroll, J. M., 2019).

Last August, The Education Policy Institute (EPI) reported that for the first time in a decade the disadvantage gap in England had stopped closing, and that there were strong signs that it had started to widen again. Whilst the gap in the Early Years had stagnated at 4.6 months (largely the same since 2013), the gap between poorer primary-aged pupils and their peers was 9.3 months – the first increase since 2007. At secondary school, they found that a gap of 18.1 months of learning between disadvantaged pupils and their more advantaged peers (Hutchinson, J., Reader, M. and Akhal, A., 2020). The stark reality is that the disadvantage gap had stopped closing pre-pandemic and, worryingly, it is likely the progress made over the past decade will be lost. However, by prioritising the improvement of our pupils’ literacy and oracy skills, we have a chance of improving this bleak picture.

A visualisation of the key findings from the report taken from EPI’s Education in England: Annual Report 2020

What does the guidance say?

The EEF’s Literacy Guidance Reports all share a common thread: they recommend that pupils from EYFS through to KS4 need to be provided with opportunities to develop their spoken language skills because there is a strong evidence base which proves this has a positive impact on attainment. Some of the recommendations include:

  • The development of language and communication across the curriculum should be prioritised.
  • High-quality adult-child interactions are important and should include talking with children as well as to children.
  • Explicit and implicit approaches for teaching of vocabulary should be incorporated into learning, including through strategies such as modelling, shared reading and storytelling.
  • Pupils should be given opportunities to collaborative with their peers, developing wider skills such as social awareness, relationship building, problem-solving and knowledge acquisition.
  • Pupils should be given purposeful opportunities to develop their thinking and communication, which in turn will support their reading and writing.
  • There should be opportunities for structured high-quality talk, accountable talk and metacognitive reflection to support pupils’ language development.

What could an oracy-rich remote offer look like?

Despite conflicting opinion in the media recently about which approach works best for remote learning, we know from the EEF’s rapid evidence review on remote learning that teaching quality is more important than the medium in which schools choose to use.

Whether your school’s remote learning format is synchronous or asynchronous, or a hybrid model, there are many ways you can look to incorporate oracy opportunities, which will in turn improve engagement during remote learning.

Oracy Toolkit for Synchronous Learning

We all have RHINOS (Really Here in Name Only Students) in our classrooms (Oakley. J., 2002). RHINOS are the invisible students who find that they can get away with not being fully engaged in their learning by being inoffensively passive. Tackling this requires us to carefully consider when it is most appropriate to use a monologic vs. dialogic teaching approach and how we can create an inclusive oracy culture.

Here are some take-away strategies to help develop a balanced approach, fostering an oracy culture of high-expectations, and to develop the cognitive and socio-emotional strands of the Oracy Framework:  

Image taken from Some Handy Tools for Building Student Engagement in Online Classes – Teach Like a Champion

Oracy Inspiration for Asynchronous Learning

If you are delivering asynchronous lessons, this could be a great opportunity to develop your pupils’ knowledge of the linguistic and cognitive strands of oracy. But, you don’t need to re-invent the wheel! Instead, take a look at Oak National Academy’s resources for inspiration and look for opportunities to develop your pupils’ wider oracy skills.

Here are some approaches to help develop the linguistic and cognitive strands of oracy: 

The moral imperative for oracy is clear: it is one of our ‘best bets’ to help minimise the effects of the pandemic on the social, emotional and academic development of our pupils and to help the disadvantage gap to narrow. It should not be reserved for another ‘recovery’ curriculum once all pupils have returned to school; it is much more than just a re-integration strategy. Our pupils still need to be immersed in language-rich interactions so they can develop essential knowledge and vocabulary, and so they continue to develop communication skills for life.

Further Reading & Links:

https://barclayslifeskills.com/young-people/

https://www.myworldofwork.co.uk/learn-and-train/find-free-online-courses

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/communication-and-interpersonal-skills-at-work

Some Handy Tools for Building Student Engagement in Online Classes – Teach Like a Champion

The Education Policy Institute (epi.org.uk)

Home – Oak National Academy (thenational.academy)

References

Breadmore, H. L., Vardy, E. J., Cunningham, A. J., Kwok, R. K. W. and Carroll, J. M. (2019). Literacy Development: Evidence Review. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Education Endowment Foundation. (2020). Retrieved from Covid-19 Resources: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Covid-19_Resources/Resources_for_schools/Reading_with_TRUST_comic.pdf

Hutchinson, J., Reader, M. and Akhal, A. (2020). Education in England Annual Report. Education Policy Institute.

Oakley. J., W. C. (2002). RHINOs: a research project about the quietly. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, pp. 10:2, 193-208.

Voice21. (2021, January 19). Voice 21. Retrieved from https://voice21.org/oracy/

CPD: How the blended model is working for us.

by Rebekah Hawthornthwaite, Assistant Principal and Assistant Director of Manchester Communication Research School.

One of the many implications of the global pandemic has been the impact it has had on schools’ capacity to implement and facilitate high-quality professional development. Not only are we juggling staggered timetables and social distancing, but the impact of school closures and the need for quality remote learning provision has also changed the nature of what professional development might need to include.

  • What do our teachers most need to know and be able to do at this time that we haven’t done before?
  • How is this different to the knowledge and skills in previous professional development and what remains the same?
  • How can PD be effectively facilitated in the ever-changing landscape of localised and national lockdowns, and with staff sometimes needing to self-isolate at a moment’s notice?

These are just some of the many, many questions that buzzed around my head as I took my first steps into MCA this September. Newly appointed to senior leadership, in a new school, and facing the challenges we all face as teachers during this pandemic, I certainly felt that I had more questions than answers.

More importantly, with the EEF’s rapid evidence assessment into the potential impact of school closures suggesting that the disadvantaged gap would have widened by a median estimate of 36%, I knew that the stakes were high. The evidence suggests that good teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. (EEF’s Pupil Premium Guide, p.5) so ensuring that PD effectively addressed elements of good teaching was crucial. Clear explanations, scaffolding, guided practice and feedback need to be secure in both classroom and remote provision. It sounds obvious, really. But with so much noise around schools re-opening, it is easy to see how school leaders have to struggle to keep teaching and learning at the forefront of the conversation.

During the first lockdown, I was aware of the many examples of excellent remote PD that had risen to the challenge. Twitter was alive with inspiring examples of everything from learning to optimise the use of new technology to developing subject-specific communities. Now that we were back in school, how could we maintain this momentum? Being back meant that people’s time was less flexible and that all of the other day-to-day priorities (not least the lingering anticipation of a positive case) would impact on our capacity to deliver. Luckily, the EEF’s rapid evidence assessment of remote professional development was hot off the press as I began my new role.

You can read the report here:https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Remote_PD_Evidence_Assessment.pdf

Finding 1 in the report was especially reassuring. Whilst I had worried about finding a space big enough to get everyone together but socially-distanced, the report found that the evidence was mixed as to whether remotely delivered PD is more or less effective than face-to-face. Crucially, it found that other design features are likely to be more important to PD outcomes than whether the delivery is undertaken face-to-face or remotely. As a key priority, I was grateful to see that the hour-long slot on a Friday had been protected for PD, which meant that all teachers can access pre-recorded videos, virtual meetings and reading at the same time without being in the same room.

Whilst the findings indicate that synchronous and asynchronous PD can both be effective for different reasons, I have found that synchronous has generally worked for us – not because it is synchronous per ser, but because it has carved-out time within the school day to enable staff to participate whilst balancing the rest of their workload. I can certainly see the benefit of asynchronous sessions but, as Finding 6 of the report advocates, school leaders need to support staff to prioritise their PD and providing protected time for this is one of the ways they can do this effectively.

The other findings in the report have also informed the development of our PD model, as well as the training we offer as a Research School. Notably, Finding 4 of the report: providing opportunities for collaboration has been important to us. We have continued to operate learning communities that are focused on our teaching and learning priorities and these provide colleagues with rich opportunities to share good practice. Likewise, we are expanding our capacity for coaching and increasingly using IRIS as a means to collect classroom examples without breaching restrictions.

So, whilst questions still buzz around my head, I can reassure them with evidence-informed responses and the inspiring enthusiasm of a teaching community that never gives up on getting better.

Could one-to-one teaching be transformational? Not necessarily

During the Conservative Party Conference earlier in October, Boris Johnson stated that he wanted to ‘explore the value of one-to-one teaching, both for pupils who are falling behind and for those who are of exceptional abilities’. The Prime Minister’s belief that such ‘intensive teaching could be transformational and of massive reassurance to parents’ was a head-dropping and heart-sinking moment. I’m sure this was the same for many teachers and school leaders. That is not because we don’t want transformational education, but is because this isn’t the way to achieve it.

Sweeping statements like this have far-reaching implications, not least being the suggestion that teaching and learning in classrooms, with full-class sizes, in schools up and down the county, is not transformational.

That is not to say that one-to-one teaching does not have its value and its place. The National Tutoring Programme is a welcome investment. With the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) leading the delivery of part of this programme, we can be sure that the evidence of the impact of one-to-one and small-group tuition, is enough to assure us that these approaches can be beneficial. At MCA, we are under way with our plans to work with Tutor Trust. We are confident in the outcomes that can be achieved, with some careful planning and from our previous experience.

However, we also know that interventions generally, must come with a word of caution and a potential risk. As we move into the delivery of this programme we should be cautious that tuition, and other interventions, are not seen to be the answer to closing the gap or aiding recovery. This is only part of the answer.

There is a wealth of evidence, captured in a number of the EEF Guidance Reports that our priority for providing the best quality educational experience (let’s avoid the language of recovery) is to prioritise high-quality teaching and learning. In a time where the national conversation is about the impact of the pandemic on education, and the genuine fears about the attainment gap widening alongside an ever-growing concern about the particular impact on students who experience disadvantage, there is a pressure to respond. Respond we should but we have to be careful about the nature of the response and the implementation. By just simply using a one-to-one or small-group model, there is a risk of adding to the potential impact of the pandemic. It is important to note here that there is yet to be any evidence of any long-term impact but understandably and rightly, school leaders are now working on mitigation.

When considering the use of any intervention, it is worth considering the following questions:

  • Is the intervention selected a proven programme? If not, how do you know it will have the desired impact?
  • Have the right students been selected for the right intervention? What data was used and how robust and reliable is that?
  • Who will deliver the intervention? Have they received sufficient training?
  • Do the conditions for the intervention allow for fidelity to the programme? If not, could any adaptations affect the impact?

For many schools, Teaching Assistants are an incredibly valuable resource. I don’t need to say here all of the benefits that effective TAs bring to our school communities. But again, the deployment of TAs at a time when there is an increasing perception that interventions provide a solution, is also worth careful consideration. Recommendation 4 of the EEF SEN Guidance Report states:  Complement high-quality teaching with carefully selected small-group and one-to-one interventions reminding us that expert teaching from subject specialists in highly effective learning environments is our most powerful tool.  Whilst recommendation 5 states: Use TAs to deliver high quality one-to-one and small-group support using structured interventions, highlighting the importance of the questions listed above.

We all know that the logistical challenges of keeping schools open in the current climate, and the guidelines around bubbles and student movement, make the deployment even more challenging. That’s not to say that TAs cannot continue to be highly effective within classrooms. At MCA, we are using the guidelines below to support TAs in still supporting the learning of students in the classroom:

  • Be the eyes and ears – scan the room and use non-verbal gestures to ensure students are sat up straight and focused on instruction. Students can’t learn that they are not attending to what they should be learning
  • Use retrieval questions and open-ended questions (how do you know? Where else have you used that?) – take notes from the starter recall and retrieval task and revisit with targeted students. You can use post-it notes/mini whiteboards to do this
  • Also use post-it notes/mini whiteboards to provide scaffolds and prompts –  vocabulary/model sentences/success criteria
  • Use targeted positive praise

Sweeping statements and simplified soundbites might grab attention, but to be truly transformational we must keep our confidence in what we know works in the classroom.