Archive for July, 2013

Two ways to be outstanding.

July 3, 2013

UK schools are being put under immense pressure to be graded as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. Now it has now been announced that schools that are failing to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils will be stripped of their ‘outstanding’ status.

Narrowing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children undeniably has to be a priority. Research by Chris Cook  shows clearly that the majority of schools fail to do this. But a minority show that it is possible. This failure to get disadvantaged children to achieve what they could has knock-on effects personally and for society throughout their lives.

The question for schools is how to achieve this. The problems that disadvantaged children have and present to schools can be severe. Many, such as their family environment are not under the control of schools, yet schools are being tasked with getting these pupils to achieve despite home problems. Working with schools that are managing this seemingly impossible task, such as some of the schools that have gained the Naace 3rd Millennium Learning Award, and schools taking part in the Naace leadership programme TOTAL, it appears that there are two possible approaches.

The first is for the whole school, including all teachers and support staff, to have an unrelenting focus on raising their pupils’ attainment, with high expectations and pressure to achieve. All the teachers have to be doing their utmost to be outstanding teachers. The pupils have to be made very aware of their current levels of attainment and what they can do to raise these. It can be good to work in an elite establishment with a very strong work ethic but there is inevitably the fear that the pressure cannot be maintained constantly and that should achievement slip, bringing it back can only be achieved with more pressure. And some pupils will have days their out-of-school problems are overwhelming and their self-image, confidence and resilience is just not strong enough to produce the concentration on school work being demanded.

There seems to be another way that is developing. In the 3rd Millennium Learning Award schools we see many examples of pupils being empowered to control their own learning and pupils leading learning. We see curriculum approaches designed to strongly engage pupils, such as ‘mantle of the expert’ and pupils presenting to wide community audiences through radio, TV and videos on school websites. We a lot of collaborative work between pupils, and pupils being able to choose how to do their work is a constant theme in the videos the schools submit. The impression this gives is of a new culture developing amongst the pupils, where the focus is on engagement and enjoyment of learning. We hear the teachers talk of pupils so keen they cannot wait to get to school and become reluctant to stop work at the end of a lesson. We hear the pupils talking explicitly about helping each other to learn. The use of technology is a key component in all this, but the key driver of more energetic learning is quite clearly the culture of learning for enjoyment that the teachers have engendered.

These schools to not abandon rigorous sessions with pupils to develop their literacy and numeracy skills and maths and English scores, but the feeling one gains from watching the videos is that this kind of learning has become an adjunct to, and just a necessary basic achievement, that opens the world of real and exciting projects that are being done for purposes relevant in the childrens’ lives.

If you were a child with huge home problems would you be more likely to respond to the former approach of high teacher expectations and pressure to achieve, or to the peer pressure and collaborative excitement of a pupil culture where learning is fun? Would you respond better to a good behaviour regime set and policed by the school or to a culture of good learning behaviour that involves pupils more strongly? This is obviously not a black and white picture and both are obviously desirable.

The question for schools is one of balance. Can conscious development of pupil engagement and enjoyment in learning reduce the necessity to apply pressure to raise achievement. Can a culture be developed that is sustained by older pupils ‘teaching’ younger pupils what good learning behaviors (and school behaviours) are. I believe that this is what schools that have normalised the use of digital are showing us.