Rocking the times tables

So, it’s been a while…

I set out with the intention of writing a blog per week and enlightening the world with my  view from within Ninestiles. Then teaching, marking, planning and everything else that comes the way of teachers got firmly in the way.

Anyway, i’m back and determined to do more, just more. No New Year styles resolutions of how many more but more anyway.

I’ll kick off with an easy (and short) one.

Today we’ve had lots of our students manically doing times tables as rapidly as possible. It’s all part of the NSPCC national number day tie up with Times Tables Rockstars and we’re doing it because we want to win…. At lunch time we were streaking well clear

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 10.35.11

I’m making no bones about it, i’m unashamedly trying to get students at Ninestiles to answer more multiplication sums than anyone else in the country. The donation to charity from Times Tables rockstars on our behalf is great and we have previously enthusiastically promoted the work of the NSPCC, especially on number day. We initially used times tables rockstar to improve the multiplicative ability of our lower Key Stage 3 students but it has been one of those weird things that just sort of has a life of its own. By no means does every student access it regularly but we have a very different student groups who compete enthusiastically.

Our best students have long since surpassed me. I set the early running but although my brain is still quick (i like to think anyway) i’m afraid my digital dexterity is no match for year 9 students who can do the rubiks cube in 20 seconds let alone bash numbers out on a keypad.

The benefit is that we have students of all abilities working together on maths. We’ve got a growing group of students who genuinely just really like maths, encouraged by an enthusiastic and motivated team of teachers who also just really like maths and are engaging and interesting.

I’ve got a feeling today is going to end in Devon Loch style glorious failure but it was fun while it lasted.

Ready, aim, fire part 2 – setting new targets

The new year brings so many new things. New teachers, new groups, new examination demands and strategies and inevitably new targets for students.

I’ve blogged before about how we used to set targets (  so I won’t go extensively over that again other than to say that our previous targets were based on the notion of “expected” progress and “outstanding” progress. We used the classic 3 levels from KS2 as the expected and 4 levels as outstanding. Now to be fair to everyone involved this system reflects a time before progress 8 and attainment 8 and everything else involved in assessing how successful we have been with the students. It also reflects a time earlier in my teaching career when I was less prone to really considering the roots of everything and their logic. At that stage I was still desperately trying to improve my teaching (still am) and was keen to meet the targets set for me and my students by the SLG whereas now I’m part of the group setting the targets!

Now we used this system both to assess our effectiveness with students and as an integral part of our appraisal process using 3 levels of progress as the benchmark for all teachers. It always felt slightly punitive to those teachers with weaker students but then 3 levels was “expected” so to demand anything else was counter intuitive. It seemed like having a higher group (particularly group 1) was akin to getting the golden ticket. Any student going on to achieve an A* would return a minimum of 5 levels of progress making the teacher look brilliant. A top group student finishing their GCSE with an A would still have secured “outstanding” progress for themselves and their teacher despite potentially making less progress in their secondary life than they did at primary school. Contrast this with a level 3 entry student who makes three levels (good) progress and is only deemed “expected”. All this and I haven’t even mentioned a sub-level entry point! Hopefully you see that it always felt rough on the teachers of lower ability students but also did not offer the highest ability students the targets they would want. For example, the last top ability group I taught was a year 10 group back in the old days of multiple entry. I think I taught them pretty well but they benefited from being highly self motivated and driven. At the end of year 10 they had recorded 7 A* grades and 11 As from 28 students. Now I like to think I’m ok at teaching but I didn’t  deserve to claim those crazy levels progress as mine, they belonged to the students.

So when, at Easter, I was tasked with assessment and reporting one of the first things I began working on was our targets. In conjunction with Brian Lewis our outstanding data manager, we began to look at the evidence for student achievement from outcomes both internally and from the national transition matrices. This showed a number of interesting things. Take maths for example as this is the subject I teach. When we looked at the highest attaining KS2 students we saw from the transition matrices that an overwhelming majority achieve A* grades (something like 76% of 5a students if my memory serves me correctly). We then compared this to our own data and saw that all of our A* grades came from ether the 5a or 5b entry groups. Surely it makes sense for these students to be given a target of an A*? We worked our way through other grades and other scenarios trying to find the most challenging grades for our students whilst maintaining feasibility and common sense wherever possible.  We also wanted to avoid setting our students targets that they would achieve but not give them access to further education. I always wince at the very thought of giving students a target of a D, slapping them on the back for 5 years telling them how “on target” they are and then commiserating with them when their college options are limited.

Eventually we came to a tiered approach. Our highest attaining KS2 students have targets that are 5 levels, there are 4 level targets for those coming in near the top of their KS2 levels and there are 3 level targets for the lower band an those middle band students from the bottom of their KS2 levels. While this all sounds a bit nuanced we hope it will accurately reflect our prior attainment whilst setting challenging and worthwhile targets. we also created notional flight paths to be able to inform students, teachers and parents whether the student was on the right track in line with our overall assessment procedures. Finally we made our best possible stab at mapping the new numerical GCSE grades in based on all the info we could find from the DFE.  They look like this….

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 19.49.51 Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 19.50.02 Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 19.50.13

We were simultaneously considering how this would affect the school progress 8 scores when the new tables are released and modelled this to try it out. If all students reach their new “minimum expected outcome” we will have a P8 score over +1.0 – here’s hoping!!!!

We know it’s not perfect, the changing landscape with GCSEs makes it difficult to be so. We also know we are currently still using levels and the absurdity of sub-levels whilst we work on the best solution for future years (watch out for a blog on this soon) but we think that it makes sense for now and sometimes that is enough to be going on with.

As ever if you’ve got comments and thoughts please let me know either here or at

Ready, Aim, Fire!!! Hang on, which target am I aiming at again?

When I first started teaching 10 years ago I thought target setting seemed complicated. We were beholden to some mysterious group out there in the ether called the Fischer Family Trust. Colleagues in other schools would sagely discuss whether they used the “D” data or the “C” data and I would pretend I knew what was going on and how it was calculated. All I knew for certain was we used “the hardest one” and I believed that only about 20% of students nationwide reached this grade. Anyway, it had the effect of feeling like a true challenging target for students that often led to a genuinely useful grade for them. There were definitely issues, usually created by our own insistence in stretching the higher attaining students and occasionally changing targets mid way through the year but for a while all was settled…

Then along came the desire to link outcomes to levels of progress. We analysed students KS2 maths score and gave them a target of 3 levels from here, did the same for English and then used the best of the English grade or the average to calculate their targets in other subjects. These three level targets were decreed “GOOD” progress targets. We did the same for every subject but adding 4 levels and made these “OUTSTANDING”. Later the labels for these measures was changed, we “expected” 3 levels of progress, 4 remained “outstanding” and we added a 5 level target, for all students although only occasionally achieved by anyone outside the highest attainers, called “aspirational”. In broad terms these labels and targets work well. They’re clearly and explicitly linked to KS2 data. They don’t vary based on the last cohort or future cohorts and they’re easy for everyone to understand. Sure there were issues. The problem of the student expected to reach a grade D which looks fine for teacher and school on the 3 levels front but leaves the student with a grade that isn’t much use. Equally you have the challenge of the student targeting a grade B who reaches a level that assures them of a C and promptly switches off. This was an especially big problem in the old days of early entry opportunities where you would target your big hitter staff to the students most in need of the grade C and worry about the 3 levels after for anyone passing! Credit where it’s due, the DFE realised that they were essentially using a very blunt instrument to make judgments on the effectiveness of teachers, schools and therefore students .

So now we head to the thorny issue of progress 8. It certainly tackles the problems I have mentioned above. Now every student, in every lesson, in every subject really counts. No longer can the school worry about just reaching a grade C and the levels taking care of themselves, now we need effective teaching in every classroom to maximise the progress of every student. That has to be a good thing. We can certainly have the fun game of matching up a really higher attaining students with a really low attaining student and hope that their Progress 8 scores balance but how do we know what will create this balance as a school?

If progress is ultimately the big aim then how about we just give every student the  target of a grade A* (or 9 on the new GCSE’s) and have done with it? I’ve heard colleagues talk around this concept but without going quite so far, there is certainly a perverse kind of Occam’s razor logic to the idea. However, I feel strongly that the targets students should be working towards are achievable and sensible. It would also be easy for staff to think of a students a long way from theses targets as a lost cause an unworthy of any effort, clearly a very undesirable situation.

The likely school based P8 targets are to be standardised against recent years students achievement. It’s impossible to really now whether we as a school are on track for a positive or negative progress 8 score until the national results are available. Perhaps this is how it should be, it certainly encourages you to push all of the students all of the way and keep working until the bitter end. But in the end, for the current year 11 that meant the data was available in about February, useful maybe but perhaps about 4 and a half years too late…

The DFE transition matrices are subject specific related and pegged from a KS2 averaged score to use prior attainment data leading to indicate the percentage of students in this position who go on to achieve each grade. This lets schools make their own judgement (with a little ego involved comparing to national outcomes!) and set targets accordingly. There is certainly a lot to be said for this and with high aspirations from school leaders, some reflection on these matrices could lead to suitable targets. However, it is interesting to note that what we called “expected” (3 levels of progress for all) goes a long way out of the window with lower attaining students. For example only 14% of students entering with a KS2 level of 3c went on to reach a grade D, would we really want to set targets that relate such a low aspiration for our students? In direct relation to P8 it is worth noting that only students with a KS2 average of 4a would average a grade C or better (maths and english double weighting dependent) across GCSE results. So the use of the matrices for schools to set targets might well lead you to a point where students head merrily towards their progress 8 targets and come out with a suite of qualifications that doesn’t allow them the future they need. And we haven’t even started on the idea of students scoring a zero for an exam!

So i’m not sure yet what we’ll do, exactly how we’ll set our targets but I do know we’re thinking carefully about it. We’re determined to get a set of targets that lead to the students feeling motivated, engaged and able to achieve but also high enough to lead them towards their future steps. At the same time the need to achieve as a school remains and hopefully the two will go hand in hand. Whatever happens, the answer as so often is to teach the students well, from the outset and doggedly pursue the best outcome possible for every student in every lesson…

If you can help me with my thoughts on this, please get in touch in the comments here or through my twitter at @alexhughesnine