“I dislike the ethos of so many of our comprehensives, where the imperative is to drag up the bovine thickos to some agreeably semi-literate level while the bright kids can go hang. It is all there in their epic disdain for competition and academic rigour, their indulgency of stupidity, the emphasis on the self-esteem of the students, as if they didn’t have enough of that already.” Rod Liddle, writing in ‘The Sunday Times’.
Stumbling across Liddle’s ‘opinion’ about comprehensive education was more than a little depressing on Sunday evening. Liddle has made a career from his extreme and provocative views but that doesn’t make it any less enraging. Rather than unleashing the tempting torrent of abuse on Liddle here (that was vented in the letter/stream of consciousness/tirade to the Sunday Times, written much later on Sunday evening!) perhaps it could be read as perfect embodiment of the damage the superfluous grammar school debate is doing.
To continue Liddle’s delightful agricultural metaphor, it appears the “bovine thickos” should be effectively rounded up like cattle and removed, so they don’t continue to offend our intellectual sensibilities. It is, of course, gloriously regressive: advocating rejecting the needs of many to focus on the development of the privileged (be it intellectually or financially) few. What is also more profoundly depressing is, as many within the education system have vociferously pointed out, systematic change will do little to improve education for the many. What will is a committed and reflective dialogue about how to improve teaching and learning and how to encourage teacher and leadership retention.
Given that perhaps it would be refreshing to use this week not to add another voice to this futile debate, but to take a step back to what seems to me be a much more honourable dialogue, one that aims to improve outcomes for the less privileged: the use of Pupil Premium funding. The principal is very simple: additional funding that exists to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils of all abilities and to close the gaps between them and their peers. Yes: closing gaps not widening them.
Context is very important: these young people are not homogenous and will have a range of different needs and requirements. Making glib generalisations about a Pupil Premium student will not assist them in developing as a learner. Obviously there are whole school initiatives and ethos that play a huge role: the drive for achievement for Pupil Premium students’ needs to be ubiquitous throughout the school, in every department and in every classroom. Discipline needs to be tight and consistent and high expectations need to permeate. Mentoring and pastoral support can also be a driving force to improve this attainment. Yet where it really matters (again) is what happens in the classroom. As the individual classroom teacher, this is my action plan for this year:
Knowing my students: The soulless part of this is obviously the first step: data. Data can inform us to an extent at this stage: what are their strengths, what are their weaknesses? What are their potential barriers to learning? Having been empowered by this then the careful planning will take place. Where would be best for them to be seated to maximise their learning? I am not an advocate of some kind of Pupil Premium table; that is merely reinforcing the notion of exclusion. Instead the priority will be to encourage seating based on others who will work best with. Simple pragmatism. Next I need to carefully reflect and plan for how to remove some of those barriers to learning: is it organisational, parental support, attendance, literacy skills? I will then need to monitor carefully the data throughout the academic year, a myopic focus on the progress based on meaningful assessment. Keeping parents engaged and a part of this driving force also only reaps rewards, particularly in terms of the focus on attendance. But this obviously goes beyond seeing the Pupil Premium that might identify the student on our lessons plans, each individual is not merely a representation of data. That leads delightfully into:
Building positive relationships: There is no divorce from any other student: the relationship that I form with the Pupil Premium student will be hugely enabling in terms of encouraging them to make progress in the subject. Communication is again vital: how can I motivate, cajole and encourage the student? Very simply for me this is about acknowledging my Pupil Premium students at every opportunity in lessons, making sure that I am checking carefully their understanding, their capacity to organise themselves in the lessons, the quality of their work. It is also about positive affirmations, using praise frequently and trying to motivate and using language that develops self-esteem positively. Empathy is again a driving factor – seeking to understand that home situations can often be difficult. After lessons conversations about interests and about how they are managing, it all goes a huge way and can provide support that might otherwise not exist.
Quality teaching: The relationship is superfluous unless it is combined with quality teaching in the classroom. Although nurturing is obviously important we are here to teach, so getting the balance with high expectations this year is a focus for me. I am aiming to assist with literacy development by ensuing reading is a core focus to lessons, I will blog on strategies from Doug Lemov’s masterful ‘Reading Reconsidered’ in the next few weeks. I will be planning for challenging objectives, frequently checking understanding, supporting and scaffolding tasks, modelling frequently, thinking carefully about how I use teacher dialogue and the nature of my questions. Supporting any progress with meaningful homework is also a focus alongside making every second count in lessons: exist tickets, do it now tasks – squeezing learning to its full potential!
Practical and actionable feedback: The Education Endowment Foundation has conducted extensive research on the impact of different elements on students’ progress and found feedback ranked amongst the highest (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit) Yet it comes with a caveat. To generalise: Pupil Premium students will be some of the hardest students to get to engage positively with written feedback. This year I am working hard to make sure that any effort that goes into marking is clear and translated into actions for the student. Monitoring carefully my Pupil Premium workbooks is also a focus, I make sure they are the books I mark first and the ones I invest most into. I also make sure that there is time designated in response time: if I have spent ten minutes students need to spend twenty. Importantly feedback is also about the one to one discussions I might have with a Pupil Premium student: which again need to be frequent and prioritised. It all helps to provide absolute clarity about what they need to do to develop their work further.
Academic and aspiration: John Tomsett’s recent blog on unfettered expectations (https://johntomsett.com/2016/08/27/this-much-i-know-about-unfettered-teaching/) struck a real chord with me. I am not advocating a warm and cuddly environment in which nurturing takes priority. Nothing should be diluted: the expectations of all our Pupil Premium students need to be very high. That comes from ethos in the classroom: expectations of the very best all of the time. I am trying to focus more on shaping quality verbal feedback, expecting well structured and well expressed responses at all times. I am being more insistent about the quality of writing in workbooks – if it is not good enough then the students need to repeat. I also want to build in more extended writing this year, giving regular opportunities to all students to write at length. Cultivating independence is a major driving force – I want my Pupil Premium students to develop the skills to self-correct and proof read. This requires real training and time in every lesson to proof read what they have written, at the moment shaped by a ‘Look out for’ slide that lists common errors. Key words are shared every lesson and used by me as frequently as possible, vocabulary acquisition can only work with incessant repetition! This drive to only accept the best speaks volumes about what we expect from them in their independent work. Aspiration needs to be everywhere: encouraging students to aim high and dream big!
Meaningful Intervention: This is deliberately last: the priority needs to be the pace, rigour and drive of what happens in the classroom. If this is secure then intervention should not exist. I would rather put all my effort in planning meaningful lessons and securing the progress of the individual students than exhausting myself and students with endless after school and lunch time intervention. In many cases, however, it is a necessary evil. Any I do this year will need to be targeted and personalised: knowing exactly who you will be working with and what their learning priority is. If the students are turning up to satisfy parental demands then it is a waste of time, they need to be there emotionally for it to have any impact. When they are there they need to work very hard for it to be at all worthwhile, all needs careful planning.
In my view the grammar school debate is frustrating because it leaves us investing our emotional and intellectual energies into things that fundamentally do not matter. What matters is what happens in the classroom, how we focus unerringly on the achievement of all our students, regardless of ability. Channeling some of this thinking into ensuring our Pupil Premium students are achieving to the very best of their ability, however, is surely a more noble and worthwhile pursuit. Indeed as teachers we are idealists who place immense value on social mobility, and ensuring that some of the wonderful students that Liddle defines as “thickos”, achieve the very best they are is a huge part of what drives us through the week.
Thanks for reading, there are some really helpful resources out there:
Jamie Thom, English teacher in the North East, blogging at teachergratitude.co.uk