Are you, or have you ever been, Pixellated?

It’s that time of year again. A couple of months to go to GCSE exams, the last round of data collection is in, and Senior Leaders are in full panic mode. 4Matrix has well and truly pulverised the figures and a list of students and teachers has popped out of the end. SIMs has generated data cards on every Year 11 student, cross-referenced against pupil premium, target grades and subgroup and the War room wall display is dutifully constructed, so that everyone, can see the current state of play. The more gung-ho schools and the most desperate schools will run at least one other data trawl and one more set of mock exams to generate maximum panic as they reveal you are miles away from your targets. As the weeks roll by, the pressure ratchets up and further strategies, each one more extreme, more perverse, more hyperventilating than the last, are rolled onto the battlefield, the modern educational equivalent of the Trebuchet or the Battering Ram.

Pixl time.

That’s what it is in London and the North East. I believe there was a Pixl toehold developing Bristol way a few years ago, but that might have changed now. It’s been some time since I was involved in the exam frenzy that is Pixl, but the techniques they pioneered, the general approach they represented is widespread now, regardless of whether your school is a member of the organisation or not. And it really is time for a rethink.

I first got involved with Pixl as a Deputy Head of a school in challenging circumstances with several years of GCSE results that were unremittingly crap, over ten years ago now. I know that data gurus will wince at the imprecision of the descriptor “Crap”, but as a “words not numbers” kind of guy, I feel it’s more accurate than a spreadsheet in giving you a full picture of the situation. Crap from top to bottom. I had just joined and like many schools they had had some kind of woolly mentoring scheme for Year 11 that had failed dismally despite an enormous amount of hard work from many people at the school. Except the Year 11s, obviously. No-one knew why it had failed so comprehensively, so Pixl’s arrival on the scene, (or London Challenge as it was known then), came just at the right time because it was providing much needed answers

We met with the Pixl head honcho and signed up on the back of his assurance that paying £3K a year was chicken feed because it guaranteed that your headline 5 A*-C figures would go up by at least 10%. It was a no-brainer. We had been on the verge of following some scheme called “Assertive Mentoring”, but went for London Challenge instead because there were several other local schools that had done so successfully, and because there was a network of support, an infrastructure to help each school through.

It was a stunning success.

Our results went up by 20%. Simply by doing our job properly, in a coordinated way, joining the dots and going the extra mile. The next couple of years confirmed it. This was an approach that worked. And it turned me into a much better Senior Leader and a much better classroom teacher. It showed me what was possible. It reminded me who were the adults in the room. It taught me to think out of the box and not to just accept how things had been done in the past. To analyse a problem and arrive at solutions, regardless of structural or institutional barriers.

Every London Challenge meeting (or PIXL meeting after the Government disbanded London Challenge) was productive. There were always new ideas, and intensely practical suggestions about strategies and approaches. Back at school, staff were receptive and eager to try these new ways of doing things because they were passionate about serving their community and their students, who frankly, had been given a raw deal by society. All was well.

And then….

As the government began to move the goal posts, PIXL responded. Each change designed to make some of the strategies unfeasible was met with ingenious new ways of delivering results. And then there would be another change and so on. Until the King was backed into a corner of the board, one move closer to checkmate. Gaming the system became the new Government catchphrase. We all thought we were just doing our jobs properly, trying to deliver for our students, but apparently not.

But even from the beginning, there were doubts. Remember the ALAN tests? Numeracy and Literacy tests that were worth half a GCCSE each, they were a useful qualification for a small cohort of Year 11 and they had the added bonus of getting them over the line of the magic five. I remember being at one meeting and some new convert to Pixl stood up and proudly told everyone how the entire year11 cohort had been got through both ALAN tests, adding x percent to their results. He received rapturous applause. What a guy!

But, what about the kids? Did they all need it?  Of course not. But they were dragged through it, sacrificial victims to the headline figures. Aren’t they under enough pressure as it is? And what about the staff who had to haul them through? I doubt they had much say in the matter.

And then there was the consultant who told us that it was imperative that our GCSE English key marginals had to achieve at least two grades above their target grade for the written coursework to maximise their chances of getting a C or above. As someone who had done coursework for the previous twenty years, working for the exam board as a senior moderator, I knew that there was only one way to achieve that, and it wasn’t by inspiring the students. It was to cheat.

At the same time the London meetings took on the air of an evangelical religious meeting. Fervour was in the air. People speaking in tongues. Tambourines banged. Individuals singled out by the saintly head of the organisation to stand and bask in the frenzied approbation of the congregation. Dissent was out of the question. It was simply not possible to question anything suggested from the front of the auditorium.

Very early on, it had been suggested that D grade (back in the day, younger readers, a C was the magic bench mark and anything below that was worthless in terms of league tables) was just not good enough and that to accept that was to fail one’s students. The suggestion that, for some students, a D grade represented a real achievement, massive progress after much hard work, was treated with disdain. You were either laughed at for your naivety, or castigated for your lack of “moral purpose”.

Ah yes, moral purpose. Smug, sanctimonious PIXL apparatchiks used this vile phrase to make it clear that anyone in the Pixl universe who did not sign up to every last madcap scheme the organisation sponsored, was in some way, a lesser human being. You were letting down your students. You were being selfish. On judgement day, there would be no way you would pass through into the promised land, because you had comprehensively demonstrated that you were not worthy.

And so, towards the end of my time under the PIXL jackboot, we had moved on from Twilight training sessions, after 6pm, walking talking mocks, constantly using the PIXL library of mock exams to drill our year 11s endlessly after school. The latest thing was to do a last -minute revision session at about 7am the morning of the real exam. The idea was that you could somehow subliminally plant key information in the minds of the students, sitting in their proper exam seats in the proper exam hall, in the last few hours before the exam was due to start. It was a brave Head of Department or Senior Leader who stuck their head above the parapet to venture the opinion that this was just voodoo exam prep, a busy activity to be done for the sake of doing something, anything, without any evidence that it worked. And heaven protect the teacher who suggested that staff had already done more than enough to support their Year 11 students and that to ask more was to risk burn out.

It got to the point where these additional activities were expected, not just by Senior Leaders, but by parents and students. Complaints were made by parents about a Department that were not willing to lay on a pre -exam session at 7 am, or an Easter revision session, or a twilight slot. You were accused directly of letting down little Johnny. A culture developed amongst students that said that attendance at extra sessions should be enough to guarantee success, even for those students who messed around with their friends when they did attend and who didn’t show up for mainstream lessons, or did show up and were involved in constant low -level disruption.

And what, ultimately, was the result of all of this “support”?

A generation of kids who developed the attitude that it did not matter what they did, in terms of class work or homework, there would always be some mug teacher who would give yet more time to them, even when they had thrown it back in their face during normal lessons. Because the kids, being very wise, had clocked that the whole thing mattered much more to their teachers than it did to them. The ultimate in spoon feeding. This, of course, was going on at the same time as Senior Leaders were launching yet another initiative to encourage independent learning, when the whole structure of Year 11 GCSE preparation rested upon an enormous, tottering edifice of dependency.

If I were the Secretary of State for Education, I would bring the whole tottering edifice crashing down. I would ban after school lessons, holiday revision schemes, the whole works. Teachers would deliver high quality lessons. Students who did not get the grades they needed would resit the year. This would incentivise students to take responsibility for their own learning. Over time there would be a revolution of attitude and students would inevitably, become independent learners, doing what they needed to do to get the grades they needed to enter the next chapter of their lives. And it would only work with an accompanying revolution in school accountability measures, which have so blighted and distorted the educational process.

Or, as has been recently suggested, get rid of GCSEs altogether, and get back to Teaching and Learning.

I hope that Year 11 teachers everywhere, and Senior Leaders and even senior members of PIXL don’t take too much offence at this. I know it’s not as simple as bad guys and good guys, bullies and victims. I know that the overwhelming majority of people involved with PIXL are well-meaning, good people who want the best for the students. And if some of them are building careers, as are some of the Year 11 teachers who are burning themselves out delivering all of this stuff, as well as trying to give their students a leg up, well there are worst things to be guilty of than that. I just wish we questioned it more and campaigned for alternative approaches. Because if there is one thing I’m sure of it’s this. The annual, exhausting scramble for GCSE results that are good enough to placate OFSTED and Performance Managers is inevitably self-defeating. And it’s not education. That is something much bigger, finer, more valuable, more important, more precious. Something, in short,  worth fighting for.

The Brain-Bit

On the back of the recent suggestions about banning mobile phones in schools, I had a discussion with some of my Year 8 students. In the middle of the discussion I noticed one student wearing what looked like a Fitbit. In days of yore, I would have automatically assumed that they were simply wearing a watch, but those gadgets have gone the way of the propelling pencil or the C90 walkman. No-one seems to do watches anymore. To make sure, I asked and was surprised when about fifteen kids put up their hands to show that they did have a fitbit.

The discussion turned to speculation about what the next technological development would be. One student suggested the Brain Bit. At the beginning of every lesson, each student would be issued with a device worn on the wrist just like the fitbit. Instead of monitoring physical indicators like heart rate, steps, calories burned up etc, it would monitor brain activity. Every ten minutes it would silently display a one- word summary of the wearer’s brain activity during the last ten -minute slot. All of the summaries would be sent automatically to a screen on the teacher’s computer, so that they had instant access to the inner most recesses of each student’s internal life.

Possible judgements could be: Reflective. Deviant. Lazy. Vacant. Criminal. Genius. Methodical. Speculative. Daydreaming. Creative. Oppositional. Logical. Socialist.

Each episode of display would give the student the opportunity to self-correct, reinforce or modify their brain behaviour in the next ten -minute slot.

Thankfully, my IT skills are as poorly developed as my sense of entrepreneurial endeavour, otherwise I would be diligently planning world domination on the back of this idea. It’s only a matter of time before some visionary foists this on us.

The End of Civilization as We Know It – School and the mobile phone

A few years ago, when “Challenging “ schools were up to their necks in PIXL- inspired ingenious fixes to seemingly intractable underperformance in league tables, I had to deliver the IGCSE English qualification to those forty Year 11 kids who were amusingly labelled, “The key marginals”. This was when Michael Gove, having totally misunderstood the nature of the IGCSE because it was the qualification of preference of public schools great and small, was encouraging Bash Street Kids Comprehensives across the land to aspire to high academic standards and enter their feral kids for the IGCSE instead. (When he actually got round to reading some of the specifications and talking to a few people, it became clear why public schools chose to do it. It was much easier. Academic standards my arse, as Jim Royle used to say. More of this in the next edition of Gove’s Greatest Gaffes.)

I had attended the PIXL course, “How to deliver the IGCSE in ten minutes from start to finish” and was working my way through it with said forty key marginals in the Exam Hall. One of the coursework assignments we did (Yes, that’s right, Govey recommended doing coursework. As I said, he hadn’t bothered to do his homework.) was based on a ghastly article on the Mail Online about the iniquitous evil of mobile phones in schools, which suggested that up and down the country school students were viewing porn in the classroom and physically assaulting teachers who dared to challenge them. It produced great written responses from most of the students, once they had got their heads around the fact that the journalist in question seemed to be writing about a school system that only existed in her tabloid imagination. As one of the kids said, scratching his head in bewilderment, “Why didn’t the school just have rules about mobiles in the classroom and enforce them?” That was the system he was used to and, I suspect, the vast majority of students across the country as well.

The fact is that most schools have perfectly sensible and workable rules regarding mobiles and it really isn’t a big problem. Banning them belongs to the same school of over the top Senior Management madness as Corridors of Silence and Zero Tolerance. They are part of modern life and they aren’t going to go away. Teach students how to use them appropriately and get over it. Last week, just as this story broke , I had just had two fantastic lessons with Year 8 that absolutely depended on all of the kids using their mobiles for research. Be the adult in the room.

Gove’s Greatest Gaffes

Number 2. Introducing the e-Bacc

Coming in at number 2 is this, one of many incarnations of that curious phenomenon, the return to Michael Gove’s School Days. Many of Michael’s deepest instincts reside in his certainty that things used to be better in the golden age, before trendy lefty liberals dumbed it all down with stuff like, umm, Media Studies, and GNVQs in Peace Studies that were worth four GCSEs in the league tables. This was a brazen attempt to make everyone take Geography and Languages and the like, rather than noddy left wing subjects like Drama and Art. Although National College of School Leadership lickspittle clones cracked the whip and proudly boasted of how they had forced through these changes on their students and staff, many school leadership teams showed much more backbone and resisted, preferring to stick instead to a curriculum that was right for their children. Oh, the irony. The forces of darkness, who in their Thatcherite guise loudly trumpeted their commitment to “choice”, would not tolerate thick working class kids choosing “easy” subjects. Choice is all well and good, as long as the right things are chosen. A bit like the will of the people.

The Old Grey Owl