When I started teaching, we didn’t have pupil-progress meetings. As far as I recall, the pupils did still make progress, but maybe I imagined that. After all, without a meeting to remind me to focus on progress, perhaps I used to drift from term to term without a care for learning?
As the years went on, the meetings became more commonplace. At some point, it became the norm for them to take place every term – and no doubt in some schools even more often.
I’ve yet to be persuaded that they’ve ever achieved much, other than to make the leaders organising the meetings feel like they’re doing something to have an impact on progress.
I remember the first time I was involved in one. I went along to the head’s office with my spreadsheet of data, all colour-coded. We went down the list, talking about anyone who was highlighted in red. At that point, it was based almost entirely on the scores they’d got in the old “optional” tests.
There were a few who’d missed their designated sublevel by a mark or two, so I confidently asserted that they were very close. For those who were further off, I talked about all the plans I had in place to make sure they did better next time.
Most of those plans were things I would already have been doing anyway; the others were made up on the hoof, in an effort to make it sound like I had a plan. And we all went away feeling like we had done A Good Thing.
Come spring, I was perhaps a little more generous with the marking of those tests where there was a risk of the dreaded red appearing again, and the problem was solved. Until next time.
'To the best of my ability'
Over time, the emphasis has shifted. For a while, it was all about the pupils eligible for pupil premium, or the ones just short of reaching the golden level 4. Some schools had a greater focus on boys for a while, or were driven by increasing writing scores.
But the general picture was always the same: leaders asked teachers what the barriers were and how they planned to overcome them, and teachers found elaborate ways of avoiding just saying “I’ll teach them to the best of my ability” and rolling their eyes.
As it happens, “I’ll teach them to the best of my ability” seems a pretty good strategy to me. We know how volatile data can be, and we also know Goodhart’s law: that as soon as any measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
The idea that a test score changes from one term to the next can tell you much is probably pretty wide of the mark. The suggestion that there’s something meaningful that an individual teacher can do for an individual pupil within a class to change that, even more so.
Manipulating the data
We can keep up the pretence, of course. We can have the termly meetings and claim that we’re not relying just on data, but on a teacher’s rounded judgement of an individual’s progress. But then we’re back to Goodhart.
If you tell me that my pay rise depends on my pupil-premium children making more progress than their peers, then by hook or by crook I can make the data say as much. But do any of us believe in that reality?
Apart from anything else, the time spent having the meeting is time that could probably be better spent on getting ready to, well, teach them all to the best of your ability.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979