It Starts as an Annotated Seating Plan

Last week, a friend forwarded me an email from her SLT. My stomach lurched as I read the content. I thought we were over this era of creating documents for the sake of tick-boxes. I thought we were past the dark days of committing everything to writing for an audience who would never read it and of a child who would never benefit.

I have my friend’s permission to blog about this email. It instructs all teachers to upload specific ‘Child-Centred Plans’ to a shared area. These ‘plans’ should give details on the following:

  • FFT20 7+ target students making positive progress (listed by name) – Current Successes, Strategies, Intervention, Support/Stretch for each [their capitalisation]. PP/EAL/SEND/LAC should be clearly identified.
  • FFT20 5+ target students making positive progress (listed by name) – Current Successes, Strategies, Intervention, Support/Stretch for each. PP/EAL/SEND/LAC should be clearly identified.
  • FFT20 4+ target students making positive progress (listed by name) – Current Successes, Strategies, Intervention, Support/Stretch for each. PP/EAL/SEND/LAC should be clearly identified.
  • FFT20 1- 3 (as above)
  • FFT20 7+ target students NOT making positive progress (listed by name) – Reason for lack of progress, Strategies, Intervention, Support for each [their capitalisation]
  • FFT20 5+ target students NOT making positive progress – as above
  • FFT20 4+ target students NOT making positive progress – as above
  • FFT20 1- 3 target students NOT making positive progress – as above

The member of SLT also asks that these plans are printed and kept in a folder by the door of each classroom. The rationale for this is that an ‘imperative’ for the school is supporting SEND students, LPA students, and all students who are not on track. Every teacher is required to write these for each class. I’ve been guilty of engaging with and defending such strategies – I’ve promoted them, in fact, as a middle-leader with only 5 classes. I hang my head in shame now, and apologise to my ex-colleagues who taught RE, History, MFL, DT, and any other subject in which you have up to 25 teaching groups each. Truly, I’m sorry.

Each document is between 3 to 5 pages long. No time has been allocated to this. Each document is taking my friend over two hours and, as an English and ICT teacher, she has 12 classes.

The question that we need to ask is – where’s the impact? In what way can this document possibly improve the educational chances and outcomes for those children? Arguably, this kind of bureaucracy serves only to take our teachers away from what they should be doing – teaching, planning, giving feedback, and using their out-of-hours-time as they please.

If something has no positive impact on learning, then we should not be doing it. If it has a negative impact on our staff, then we should not be doing it.

The routine adage will, of course, be wheeled out by some in response to this –we just need teachers to know their classes really well! Yes. Yes, we do. And that professionalism is the very essence of what we do. We know our classes really well because we teach them, and assess them, and talk to them, and learn about their funny little ways when we eat with them – on duty or just in the canteen. We know our classes because anybody who spends 5 hours with a teenager every week will be hard-pushed to not know them, and when they are quiet, or hold back, or something seems wrong, then we flag it with the DSL. We’re trusted to follow the statutory guidance of KCSIE and protect lives, but we need to commit to paper how we’re supporting Simon, the LPA, with extra handwriting tasks and how we’ve seated Isma next to Charlie because they’re both HPA PP and work really well together. Somebody somewhere has unleashed a monster.

How do we end up with these demands?

It starts as an annotated seating plan.

Isn’t it lovely, though, to see where the PP students are? And isn’t it insightful to look at where the teacher has made a professional judgement about where to put the students with EAL? Perhaps we can make a comment on how the LPA students are performing and then offer some advice on moving them to the front – because, you know, educational research has proved time and time again that children learn best and achieve more and make better progress when they’re at the front, so we should put the Students With the Biggest Gaps at the front.

Except, of course, it’s all a load of rubbish. Not seating plans – I mean the comments and judgements and sage nods by learning-walkers. I take no issue with seating plans. Or annotated ones, really, if your school is willing to invest in or create a system to generate them without bother. We use MINT and I’ve praised it before here (while moaning about other time-wasting activities which suck the life out of the profession)*.

And so the annotated seating plan exists, and schools that use software are doing well with this. No worries. But then, at a conference or a meeting, someone picks up on this idea that we need to ‘really probe into the root cause of underachievement.’ Someone else hears that we need to ‘keep asking why?’ in order to understand how to help these kids. So someone else designs a proforma, and someone else says ‘wait – let’s divide up those who are underachieving and those who aren’t!’ and then someone else pipes up with ‘what about the key groups?’ and before you know it, you have 24 hours of extra work per teacher on a form designed by people who rarely teach.

A form that has no impact.

The reality is that we just need to pare back the dust and the fluff, and focus on teaching them well and reliably. We need to work to consistently good behaviour, with outstanding pastoral support for all. We need to care for our teachers in a way that makes them know that they’re trusted with the education of these young people. High-quality feedback (not marking!); consistency; reliability; expert subject knowledge and an understanding that we do not care one jot what has happened before – we’re not limited by prior attainment.

Here’s why it doesn’t work:

An observer enters the classroom and looks at the ‘Child-Centred Plan.’ S/he looks to the PP students, who are labelled on the seating plan. Immediately we have a problem.

‘Laurence is underachieving,’ the observer notices. ‘Hmmm. Why could this be?’ The observer looks to the ‘reasons for lack of progress’ and sees that the teacher has written ‘struggles with analysis’.

Before we mock the teacher, let’s remember that it’s *literally impossible* to pin underachievement down to one factor. It’s probably fairly hard to quantify underachievement, but that’s another point.

It could come down to:

The lack of a table at home to study. The parent who works nights and allows Laurence to slide onto the PS4 without challenge. The fact that Laurence really hates probability and creative writing, but quite enjoyed music in Year 9, which clashed with the vocational course he definitely wanted to take. The fact that he had a string of supply teachers in Years 7 and 8 when the maternity cover teacher left for a permanent post and then the main teacher left and the school couldn’t recruit. The fact that Laurence thrived in year 6 and scored a phenomenal SATs grade, but this hasn’t translated well into achievement at secondary. The list goes on.

The learning-walker looks to the form and sees that Laurence has been identified by the teacher as not being on track, and that the teacher has sent home revision materials, phoned mum, has put him at the front of the room next to an over-achiever, and prioritised him for after-school revision. Box ticked. Except that none of those strategies will work for Laurence.

The revision materials won’t get a look in and there’s nobody to enforce it anyway. Mum doesn’t have time. The over-achiever next to him is actually an underachiever – she has EAL and underachieved at KS2, so has very low targets and has the appearance of someone doing well (she’s a key story in the pattern of the school’s achievement – overlooked by the observer), and he attends after-school revision but is exhausted by 3.30pm because he’s up all night and nothing goes in.

What Laurence probably needs is care, pastoral support, and expert teaching. When he’s getting those things, it won’t make any difference to him or his outcomes if that is on a ‘Child-Centred Plan’. It’s not a child-centred plan. It’s a learning-walker-joy sheet.

On the school goes, thinking that this is the step to success – that this is the golden ticket to the OfSTED Good. And all this time, the teachers are looking for other jobs where none of this happens, and outcomes and judgements are better, because the staff are just left alone to teach.

* MINT is almost instant. You click and it allocates kids to seats, or you can do it manually, or you can tell it to follow rules (boy/girl, for example). My seating plan is part of my behaviour management strategy. I think about it a lot. It’s for me, though. Not for a ‘learning walker’ or an observer.

Featured Image: ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ John Darch – One of Antony Gormley’s cast-iron figures emerges from the sea as a high tide recedes on Crosby Beach. Labelled for reuse under the creative commons licence.