The PTE Newsletter – Tuesday 8 June

After what seemed like the longest half term ever, we hope you all had a restful time last week and were able to make the most of the better weather. We know that June and July will be as busy for you all as ever – so here’s to a smooth few weeks and no surprises from government and others!

Being Warm/Strict: the Power of Positive Defaults

At PTE we believe Warm/Strict approaches are key to a great school cultureand the best way to get the most out of, and for, pupils. As the legendary teacher-trainer Doug Lemov says in “Teach Like A Champion”:

“You should be caring, funny, warm, concerned, and nurturing – but also strict, by the book, relentless, and sometimes inflexible.”

Underpinning Warm/Strict is the understanding that humans are complicated creatures. We’re full of competing & conflicting motivations and desires, some positive and some less so, and it’s vital that schools recognise this when they design their policies and practices. This means that instead of assuming we’re all perfect and will always do the right thing, systems should aim to nudge or pull us towards positive behaviour and interactions.

To achieve this we need things to be:

  • Simple, so pupils and staff know what to do without being overloaded with instructions.
  • Clear, so they know what to do and know if they have done as requested.
  • Universal, so it is easy to enforce, seen as fair, and becomes habitual; and
  • Worthwhile, to gain & maintain buy-in and compliance.
This isn’t remotely unique to schools. We get these kinds of nudges in all aspects of life.

For instance, the Highway Code is full of these sorts of things. If there was only one car on the road network, we wouldn’t need it, but there are millions, and so we need simple, clear, universal & worthwhile rules to keep everyone safe and the system flowing.

It’s why we are all meant to drive on the left, stop at red lights, indicate when turning, give way on roundabouts, and so on. Even BMW drivers…

And it’s also why we accept that there are consequences for not abiding by these rules – even though it’s a drag if we breach them accidentally and get caught.

However, an important point to consider is that there is a very strong incentive to follow most of the rules. If you drive on the wrong side of the road or run a red light you are very likely to hurt yourself, so there is a big incentive to do the thing that works for others too.

It’s quite different in schools, as often we are asking pupils or staff to do things for the immediate benefit of others as opposed to themselves: for example, not calling out in class or turning up late for lessons.

It’s why schools need to put so much thought into making rules worthwhile. A massive part of doing this is communicating the benefits of compliance – “we don’t call out so everyone can take their time to think about the question”. However, communication takes us only so far in a school full of humans with their competing and conflicting motivations.

“Yes, I want to let others think about the question the teacher just asked, but I also want to get a laugh from my mates.”

“I understand that having a school uniform means we don’t have to worry about what clothes to put on in the morning, but I’ve got a great pair of trainers I want to show off.”

And so, an inevitable part of making rule-following worthwhile has to come from the way pupils are rewarded for doing so – and also the consequences for not doing so. These things nudge pupils away from anti-social or self-destructive actions towards ones that they and their peers benefit from.

Sweating the detail around rewards & consequences is possibly one of the most powerful things teachers can do to make positive behaviour the default in the vast majority of its pupils. It means the biggest proportion possible of the community benefit from the rules through self-regulation and frees up staff to support the small number of pupils struggling with this. Everyone wins.

There is no rewards and consequences policy that would work in every school. Policies and practices are a reflection of the context, values and priorities of each organisation. However, they are more likely to be effective if they ask for things that are simple, clear, and universal – and make it worthwhile for everyone to comply. READ MORE

Latest news & views

It’s all about Covid and cash this week. After quite some build up, last week the government announced its latest plans for education recovery. It’s fair to say that they were overwhelmingly received with disappointment.

Having allegedly been told by the Prime Minister that money was no object, Recovery “Czar” Sir Kevan Collins couldn’t get the Treasury to cough up the £15 billion that his proposals required over the next few years. Instead £1.4 billion was found, on top of the £1.7 billion already announced, primarily for tuition for pupils.

Having provided the most lukewarm of quotes for the official press release for the plan, a day of resignation rumours about Sir Kevan ensured. This was eventually confirmed by his resignation letter being obtained by the TES. (Note how said letter was handily formatted to fit a single page, perfect for screenshots and social media.) Cue doom and gloom on broadcast, print, and social media.

A few days on however, a few things have become clearer. The government is adamant that the latest cash will be added to later in the year as part of the broader Spending Review. It is highly likely more money will be found – but it will have to be for things that have the firmest of evidence behind them to get Treasury approval. As Robert Colvile explored in the Sunday Times, there are going to have to be hard decisions made about spending all across government as the days of the magic money tree come to an end.

A longer school day – the most expensive proposal from Sir Kevan – will be a hard sell to teachers, and the evidence that it would help pupils is variable. Indeed, the Telegraph ran a piece over the Bank Holiday weekend about research from Cambridge University that suggested only marginal gains were to be had from this, and that the quality of what was done in the existing time available mattered more.

William Stewart wrote a great summary of the overall situation in the TES that is well worth a read. Another piece worth a peek is by Natalie Perera of the Education Policy Institute in the Guardian. The EPI had drawn up their own proposals for the recovery plan, which were very similar to what it is reported Sir Kevan wanted – Perera warns that unless significantly more is done, a generation of children face long-term impacts.

Moving away from the recovery plan, it appears that schools in a number of areas have reintroduced mask requirements in the classroom, despite government guidance dropping the rule in May. Schools in areas with high Covid infection rates, like Tameside, Cheshire and Oldham, as well as Bedford, Kent and Staffordshire, have reintroduced mask-wearing amid evidence that the Delta variant first identified in India is spreading rapidly in schools.

A silver lining for schools of the pandemic has been the rise in people looking at teaching as a career. A major initial teacher training provider has reported that applications received this year are at their highest for more than half a century.

The University of Sussex says latest figures show a 25 per cent increase in teacher training applications and a 38 per cent increase in course place acceptances compared to the same time last year. This reinforces earlier reports from UCAS.

And away from Covid, researchers at Oxford University have found that students who drop mathematics at the age of 16 have lower amounts of a brain chemical that is critical for brain and cognitive development, compared with those who continue maths.

The reduction in the chemical, which works as a neurotransmitter, was found in a key area of the brain that supports maths, memory, learning, reasoning and problem solving – and researchers warned it could put affected students at a disadvantage.

Head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman said it was “concerning” that secondary schools were allowing pupils on GCSE and A-level courses to end the summer term six weeks or more early. Spielman said Ofsted “will want to know” how schools are using the remainder of the term to help their pupils in the exam year groups – year 11 and year 13 – catch up on learning lost during the pandemic lockdowns.

However, Tabitha McIntosh thinks that having an extended summer break is all the more crucial for this year’s Year 11 because they’ve been locked inside for over a year. It’s certainly something to think about.

Finally, amidst everything else it’s good to see a couple of the perennial topics pop up again. Andy Bayfield considers the classic knowledge versus skills debate, arguing “Let us remove ourselves from this extremism and realise we do not have to be for or against, that Lennon excelled because of the presence of McCartney and vice-versa, and that balance is the key to nearly everything that is effective in teaching – as it is in life.” 

And Mark Dawe makes the case for mobile phones as a tool for learning. Dawe says he can “see merit in the argument that phones can be distracting. Lockdown learning was a nightmare – the very device they are using for learning is the access to fun and friends across the world.” However, he makes a good case for being flexible in terms of the device learners use when directed to do so.

Lots to mull over – have a great week!