All schools are equal but some are more equal than others

I recently attended the Festival of Education at Wellington College and heard Amanda Spielman give a keynote.

I wrote this for The Driver Youth Trust.

Amanda Spielman, OFSTED’s new leader gave a rousing talk at the Festival of Education last week. She listed ways in which schools were gaming the system:  allowing students with EAL to take a GCSE in their first language rather than French, putting learners through the computer driving course to bump up league tables and teaching exam content five years before year 11 GCSEs. What she said made sense; let’s think of the students more and fixing the data less. Let’s give children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussing on skills required to pass exams. Teachers across the country will be cheering her along every step of the way.

Amanda Spielman set out her stall and I was on the whole nodding in agreement.  Until she delved into the realm of SEND, that is. She said,

‘If you are putting more resources into providing exam scribes than in teaching your strugglers to read and write…you are probably doing your child a disservice’.

This was an attack on SEND teachers across the country showing a lack of knowledge in how schools run. Firstly, literacy teaching and scribes go hand in hand. A child who is struggling to read and write will have many interventions thrown at them through their school life but also, if they haven’t reached a standardised score of 85 by the time they are taking exams, then arrangements must be provided. This is stated in law under the Equality Act (2010).

By resources, I assume Spielman means training and TAs.  TAs are deployed to scribe for learners when they cannot show their knowledge to the best of their ability, not at the same time as teaching them to read and write but in tandem. By year 11, scribes are used for GCSEs and TAs are given a memory aid and brief training to ensure they are familiar with the rules.

Examples of students who require scribes (names have been changed):

Timothy has cerebral palsy. While he can read and spell in the above average range Timothy does not have the stamina or speed to write for lengthy periods. Timothy is doing A’Levels.  During his GCSEs he became frustrated with his scribes as they couldn’t write fast enough for him. The school provided and trained him in speech recognition software so he could scribe for himself. It was a perfect fit for Timothy and he got the grades required for university where he will continue to scribe using Dragon Naturally Speaking (if Timothy was doing his GCSEs he would now lose spelling marks for using a scribe despite the fact he can spell perfectly well).

Sandra is from a large family, all of whom have a range of special educational needs. Sandra says ‘I’m the lucky one, I just have dyslexia.’ It is severe however, and despite many interventions and specialist 1:1 instruction, Sandra’s literacy has improved but in no way reflects her attainment levels. Her spelling and decoding scores are within the lowest 10% of the population.  Sandra is predicted Cs and Bs in her GCSEs however and uses a reader and a scribe. She will lose spelling marks in her GCSEs for having a scribe.

Lee is a looked after child. His literacy scores are low enough to require both a reader and a scribe. He came to the school following a very troubled background and remembers more swings in back gardens than he does schools. Moved from local authority to local authority, care home to care home, the gaps in his schooling are huge. There is no diagnosis of dyslexia, lack of education is thought the cause. The school put in literacy 1:1 sessions for him but the lack of time from when he began this school to his GCSEs still mean that while he has made massive progress, he is eligible for a reader and a scribe. Lee will lose SPAG marks in his GCSEs.

To blame the school system for what is a legal requirement for learners with SEND is irritating. There are so many, more pressing injustices to highlight. Earlier in the day, I listened to Vic Goddard giving a talk on ‘The Inclusive School’. He told us the school down the road has an unofficial, ‘no SEND policy’ and encourages parents of children with SEND to go to Vic’s school instead where they ‘can better meet your child’s needs’. Let’s guess which school got the ‘outstanding’ grade shall we?

I heard NASEN’s CEO, Dr Adam Boddison, tell of a school who got an ‘outstanding’ judgement despite not having a SENCO (a legal requirement).  OFSTED knew this. He showed us damning figures on permanent exclusions of learners with SEND; home education for students with SEND is on the rise. The alarming picture shows that students with learning difficulties are not managing in the mainstream and schools such as Passmore’s get no acknowledgement for embracing these children.

The system is failing many learners with SEND in mainstream schools and there is no accountability. When Amanda Spielman spoke so eloquently of gaming in schools but ignored our SEND students, other than to take away their reasonable adjustments which are there by law, I can’t help feeling this neglected sector of society, those with the least resources available to them, are again hidden from policy maker’s eyes (highlighted in DYT’s  ‘Through the Looking Glass’ report). Something which gets in the way of ‘standards’ and platitudes. It is much easier for the narrative to be ‘teach the SEND out of them and cure them with literacy lessons’. SEND students are not going anywhere, we need to stop ignoring them and give them the tools to succeed. OFSTED must give schools incentives to value all learners and reward those who do inclusion well, not punish them or criticise them for giving children scribes.

If teachers feel embattled, as Hugh Dennis acknowledged when opening the Festival, then mainstream SEND ones are lying half dead in the bunkers. Told SEND doesn’t exist, expected to show impossible progress or accused of ‘dysteachia’ (the term coined by a few private tutors to explain why some students can’t read and write); it is always the teachers’ fault.

Let’s give ALL children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussed on skills required to pass exams. But let’s not forget that OFSTED played a part in creating this culture. Like Benjamin in Animal Farm, I am sceptical. Will these shiny new promises amount to a significant shift in values for schools? Or will teachers just be beaten with a different stick? This new positive OFSTED would no longer be judging teachers on ‘how’ they teach, granted, but would they instead be inspecting ‘what’ they teach?

It seems at present that ‘Schools are all equal, but some are more equal than others’.


Day 11 – ClaroReadplus – Assistive Technology -#28daysofwriting

I’ve written about a free text-to-speech (Balabolka day 4) and how it’s incorporated into MyStudyBar (also free Day 3). I’ve written about a commercial one (ReadWriteGold day 9). Now it’s the turn of Claroreadplus – another paid for toolbar.

The choice between this and ReadWrite is mainly preference (I think ReadWrite is a little more intuitive).

Claroread’s features include:

Text-to-speech – will read documents, email and Internet

Reads 30 languages

Word prediction (including high frequency words, phonetic and learns subject specific

Spellcheck including homophones

Dictionary and thesaurus

A listen later option to read text into an audio file

Scanning OCR function

Includes ClaroIdeas – mind mapping, a ScreenRuler and ClaroCapture – captures images and text from web pages and documents for references…

Claro offer a 15 free trial

Day 9 – Assistive Tech – ReadWriteGold #28daysofwriting

TextHelp is one of the biggest commercial providers for text-to-speech and their ReadWriteGold is very fancy.

You know we’re always moaning about white goods? Knowing that washing machines do a gazillion things but we only use the 40 degree mixed wash?

ReadWriteGold is a little like this – yes it reads text to you but my goodness it does so much more.

When I show teachers they often comment that they would like it for teaching – it does do smashing stuff which is why it costs money compared to the (still very good) free MyStudyBar. (Day 4 blog).

It’s worth talking to TextHelp though as there are options – site license etc (I don’t do money so I can’t expand).

What it does:

Reads text and has screen capture to read from the Internet

Predictive text (including prediction from a word bank)

Homophone checker

Verb checker

Similar words

Dictionary – reads definitions

Spell checker

A lovely picture dictionary which can stay at corner of screen – if a student types ‘globe’ a picture of globe comes up

A particular favourite of mine – a tense checker – you can put ‘drive’ in for instance and all options come up with a clock to show past, present etc (dyslexia is a language impairment and tenses can be tricky)

A pdf aloud option

A scanner – scan anything in and it can turn into a word document (even a picture of text from your phone)

Various tint screen, screenmask and ruler options

Translator -French, German, Spanish and Italian

Great highlighting tool – you can highlight sections in 4 different colours then the tool bar will collate then into the separate colours

A fact folder – great for bibliography (includes hyperlinks and pictures)

A key word collector – will pick out words from a document

Speech maker – audio/MP3

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some features but my 28 minutes are up.

If you want to invest in a toolbar – this really is a great one and worth asking for a trial.

Oh, I forgot – there is a teacher setting to switch off the dictionary etc for exams. Don’t forget students can now use a screen reader for the reading section in English paper but NOT a human reader.


Day 5 – Voices – Assistive Technology #28daysofwriting

I’m not quite as famous as Ethel Cain (first speaking clock voice) but I was the voice of Falkland Islands telephone exchange in 2000 – Ethel and I had our voice recorded with a finite amount of things to say however, but a synthetic voice is different because a computer generates the sounds of words – the more accurate and naturally sounding the voice, the more expensive it is.

Because I use various Assistive Technologies with my students, I have become very familiar with free computer voices. I would prefer to listen to Jeremy Irons reading Pride and Prejudice obvs but these are prepared audio books.

If you want electronic text read to you unprepared by a human it will be a computerised voice.

And I’m a computer voice nerd. “That’s Daniel” I yell when I hear a satnav or “ah Microsoft Hazel is not as good as Sangeeta” I say to the bewilderment of other less voice spotting staff.

There are many free computer voices and ones which come with certain software – they’re all fine – Tyler from New Zealand is really rather lovely.

The paid for ones however are better but because I work in state education I rarely get to hear these. Ivona sell and create voices as do Cereproc. There are even children’s voices. I would not hesitate to purchase one of these for a student if nothing else worked but so far I haven’t needed to.

Two, high quality voices (Jack and Jess) created by Cereproc for 16+ students are impressive. I use Jack, he’s Northern. Obviously I have never typed ‘Jules I love you will you marry me?’ and got Jack to say it – that would be weird (awkward pause).

When you introduce voice choice in schools you do need to expect expletives to be typed then read out by the voices to immature chuckles, it’s par for the course. Once staff have got over the novelty however the students take over, choose a voice and usually stick with it.

Jack and Jess are free from JiscTechDis and work really well with Balabolka (Day 2 blog) for a totally free, high quality text-to-speech package. The voices will also work with paid for text-to-speech applications. Don’t forget you could download Jack and Jess if you’re studying (aren’t all teachers these days?), you just need to register with the post 16 provider’s name.

So, trial some voices and let me know who you like.


Day 3 #28daysofwriting – Assistive Technology – MyStudyBar

MyStudyBar is from eduapps.

This is a free bar of goodness which sits at the top of your computer. It’s also a portable app meaning you can have it on a USB stick to be loaded onto computers around the school.

I know more colleges using this than schools but blimey, if you can’t afford the commercial alternatives, this is like winning the lottery.

Colleges tend to leave the job of rolling out MyStudyBar to the Learning Resource Centre (library). They often have learning technologists too but all you need is to bribe your IT techs with cake and beer and cultivate an enthusiastic Teaching Assistant and, bingo – you can set up students in need of help with great technology.

MyStudyBar has been funded, I believe, by Scotland’s Department of Education – big hugs.

So, what is it?

A bar with many features:

It has mind mapping, sticky notes, portable calendar, Balabolka (see Day 2), translator, magnifier, thunder (screen reader for visually impaired), screen tint, tbar etc etc – it really is impressive considering it costs nada.

The commercial ones are the Rolls Royce but this is not a Robin Reliant – maybe a Vauxhall Zafiri?

In my experience, it is not quite as dependable as the paid for ones – it doesn’t always work and it’s less intuitive. Also I like things to fit seamlessly and this hovers at the top rather than fitting right across the screen – that’s just me though. Some IT techs don’t like it – I can’t remember why (something techy) but in my experience they often don’t like iPads either – meh. I’m not being prejudiced some of my best friends are IT technicians.……


Day 2 #28daysofwriting – Balabolka

Balabolka means ‘chatterer’ in Russian and it does exactly that on your computer. It’s a free, text-to-speech (TTS) piece of software which enables students to have electronic text read out to them.

Balabolka is one of the best free TTS on the market as it has many features usually reserved for the commercial ones.

It uses a bimodal form of reading which means the students use their eyes and ears; tracking while listening. I have found some tentative research to show this may enhance students’ reading skills rather than replace them. Whether this is true or not, it certainly allows anyone who cannot access text through decoding or visual impairment to read with their ears.

Other features are that you can change the background colour, the highlighting colour and even the skin. You can turn text into audio files so students can listen to text on their iPod/MP3 etc and you can change the speed and pitch of the computerised voice.

This can be loaded onto old laptops and with a set of headphones could be transformative for a student who cannot access the text based curriculum.

A few words of warning:

* if using as a proofreading tool remember that the changes you make to essays opened in Word will need to be copy and pasted back in to Word – Balabolka is the platform you open files into but it doesn’t work in Word

*ask someone IT savvy to download it – it’s very easy to get spyware/pop ups and random search bars


See CallScotland’s Blog –…

Day 1 #28daysofwriting – What is Assistive Technology?

Why should my students use it?

I am cheap. I will do pretty much anything for a freebie. And if I write for 28 days I get a @staffrm mug.

What to write about though?

Well, part of my job is doing Assistive Technology Assessments for students in Dorset. I am therefore constantly looking for software and apps to match up to a student’s needs.

So I am going to write 26blogs which cover a different app or piece of software. This leaves me 1 blogs to introduce the topic and 1 at the end to conclude.

What is Assistive Technology?

Any technology which removes barriers for students. To allow them to achieve and to engender independence.

If you have students who cannot access the curriculum and/or record their work effectively then technology may allow them to do this.

I work with students in mainstream schools so the three assistive technologies I concentrate on are:

Text to Speech – where text is read out by a computerised voice

Speech to Text – where a student talks and the computer types their words


Concept Mapping – where a student can plan work in the form of a spider diagram or mind map.

Understandably, people ask why we can’t just teach students to read and write properly – well if this ever happens for all students I will be the first to jump up and down whooping (most of my job is to teach reading and writing) but until that time what are we doing to aid these students’ achievements?

What are we doing to help them access a text based curriculum if they can’t read?

What do we do until they catch up with their typically developing peers?

If it’s acceptable for students to benefit from a Teaching Assistant then why not a tablet or laptop?

I look forward to persuading you – I have another 27 blogs to do it in.