#2 Opening Doors Post Lockdown: Doors Ajar
Continuing the Story of Opening Doors School Hubs 2022-3
In the Spring/Summer of 2022 several themes were emerging in the landscape of primary education as I was experiencing it in my role as an English in education consultant. 2021-22 was – in theory if not in the lived experience of schools – the first uninterrupted year of education in schools since the Covid pandemic.
Through a super-human commitment, many schools were seeing the impact of reading decoding, fluency and comprehension interventions. Reading catch-up was not ‘fixed’ – but seemed at least fixable.
Many schools, responding to observed pupil need and listening to some external advice, were reducing the difficulty and complexity of texts explored in whole class contexts because the average reading attainment in the group had dropped. There was an increase in the use of picture books at KS2, wordless texts, or texts usually used with younger year groups.
Teachers and leaders spoke of an increased and enduring struggle to establish the learning behaviours needed for oral language development: safe, reciprocal, focused paired, small group and whole class dialogue
In every class there were young writers who were composing engaging texts and were motivated to do so. There were many more whose language choices seemed limited, for whom application of punctuation and spelling rules were patchy, who were reluctant to write and found it to be a physical struggle: ‘my hand hurts’. There was also a much longer tail of children at KS2 as well as KS1, who found it hard to sit at a desk, hold a pencil, form a letter.
Essentially it seemed that the so called ‘gaps’ in writing outcomes that had opened up through the pandemic were wider, more persistent and more complex than schools’ existing capacity for intervention.
It needs acknowledging here how mindfully and how hard schools were working on building children’s core strength, gross and fine motor control as the foundations for handwriting. How space was being made for increased handwriting instruction. How targeted the expansion of approaches to both phonemic and morphemic word building in spelling.
Most schools understood that spoken language is the foundation for literacy and were establishing talk-based interventions like NELI in the early years, or working hard to re-build at least ‘think-pair-share’ routines as part of the normal discourse pattern in the classroom. They reported more pupils unwilling – often unable – to engage in reciprocal, purposeful paired talk and yet more unwilling to share their thoughts in a whole class context.
Many schools were also increasing the emphasis on sentence level teaching – both its grammar and its punctuation. They reported that this seemed to have an impact on accurate sentence level writing in the lesson, in the moment, but that as soon as pupils were asked to compose at greater length, the knowledge and skills were not transferred.
Really opening doors
To some it may seem at best counter-intuitive, at worst barmy to reveal here that my approach as an Opening Doors consultant during this year had been to increase challenge in the English curriculum:
Journeys through texts need to capture attention, stimulate thinking and talk (and thereby language development) through the ideas they explore. If they do not provide challenge to the most able reader in the class, (or indeed fascinate the teacher…) they are too easy.
Writing tasks should grow out of the language and thinking stimulated by the challenge in the text.
The goal of each writing task – whether a single sentence, a paragraph or more extended text – is to reach out to the reader. How do we want the reader to think and feel about this setting? This character? The arrival of Spring? The pollution of our local river?
The reason or motivation for teaching phonics is not to apply phonics knowledge.
The reason or motivation for teaching writing is not to transcribe words and sentences accurately.
These skills are likely to underpin or support the approach of a fluent writer to composition – but they should not be presented as the goal.
Disaggregated literacy skills like phonics, handwriting and spelling are necessary – but they are only a means to an end. In many classrooms, the teaching of writing was becoming increasingly disaggregated from the aesthetic, artistic discipline of English. Having something to say; recording, refining and sharing this with others is the bedrock of all artistic disciplines, no matter what the artist’s age, ability or context. Should we only open this door to creative and purposeful composition when we judge children to be ready at a close-up skills level? Are children only writers in waiting?
By working closely on writing with some schools during 2021-2, I had also been facing the metaphorically ‘sticky door hinges’ presented by the STA Teacher Assessment Framework for Writing. The end of KS1 ‘expected’ descriptor, in particular, is dominated by writing simply and accurately – the weighting of bullet points firmly resting on transcription targets. ‘Writing effectively and coherently for different purposes’ only appears in the description for age 7 writers working at ‘greater depth.’ The end of KS2 descriptors, for writers working at the ‘expected’ standard, at least place greater weight on the effectiveness of the writing and an awareness of reader when making choices, though these can be trumped by features of spelling or punctuation inaccuracy.
In short, meeting the ‘mastery’ STA end of Key Stage national assessment descriptors in post-lockdown classrooms was putting pressure on teachers and schools to bias their writing instruction towards simplicity, coherence and accurate transcription, not compositional effectiveness or creative choice and control.
Doors open for all
It has been a constant theme in my professional lifetime that children who are struggling with literacy skills are given reduced access to texts rich in language and ideas, ‘so that they can master the basics’.
Essentially, children who embark on a stage of education at a lower level, go slower and tend to be further behind by the end of the stage compared to their peers. Needing more of the basics, needing less challenging texts, needing a different diet has not – even pre-pandemic – led to a significant closing of the gap. The real holy grail we are seeking in mainstream comprehensive education cannot only be skill catch-up gap closers, but the design of provision that accelerates the progress of children who struggle, whilst supporting continued progress for those who are flourishing.
The very deepest principle of the Opening Doors approach to English provision is equitable access to challenge and richness.
In the wake of the pandemic – we genuinely asked ourselves – did we need to temporarily abandon our challenge for all principle, while we re-established some basic skills for all?
Doors opening wide at Hawkwood
The timing of two, residential Opening Doors conferences in the spring of 2022 could not have been more apposite. Opening Doors teachers, leaders, allies in other organisations and consultants, funded and supported by the charity Potential Plus were able to meet, eat and exchange experiences and ideas face to face in the sunshine and countryside near Stroud.
This was no self-congratulatory jolly. What we learned as consultants was that schools who were sticking to their high pitch, access for all principles were seeing an accelerated and energising build back of children’s interest, efficacy and ability as writers:
“We saw it make a difference to our lower attainers first,”
“We are giving the children a voice; a means to self-expression.”
“The confidence and enthusiasm of staff and students is palpable.”
“No teacher is now afraid of teaching poetry.”
It was clear that Opening Doors principles and strategies were supporting teachers in a diverse range of contexts to reconnect children with writing in a way that was built on motivating writing purposes and composition driven goals.
It was also clear just how much expertise and CPD ‘potential energy’ was present in the twenty five schools that joined us over the two conferences. We gently floated the notion of becoming an Opening Doors Hub school – offering no fixed definition – asking instead whether this would be a desirable next stage and what form schools would like this to become.
In my final blog post, I will explain how the principles, form and function of the Opening Doors Hubs emerged in collaboration with schools.