One of the difficulties of dealing with data at a whole school level is the sheer volume of students involved and the wide range of departments involved. As so much of what we do in the higher years is reported at a national level it is easy, and obvious to focus on the Y11 classes, making sure they have achieved what they need to.
When we look at these patterns in most schools we see fairly detailed analysis and focus at ks4, with slightly less focus at Y10. At ks3, the tracking in the main, focuses on progress in individual subjects, again, the quality of this type of tracking varies from subject to subject, and often, from teacher to teacher.
However, if we are to create a real culture of improvement and focus, as is often seen in the most successful schools, we need to be looking at the bigger picture and each subject needs to see its part within it. The challenge is to stop the insular thinking that is traditionally the way schools work. Maths, Science and English often struggling against each other for kudos and higher grades and more time, foundation subjects feeling sidelined or pushing for their needs to the detriment of other subjects. The time has come that we see ourselves as truly part of the same organisation, with the same purpose.
One of the biggest challenges in moving a school from good to great is dealing with within-school variation. This is where students have very different experiences in different subjects across the school, or where the difference between pupils with similar abilities on paper is vast because of the teacher they have. Obviously, there will be differences between subjects, not everyone can or will have the ability to do well across the school. However, should there be such a difference? Students who achieve an A or a B in English achieving an E or F in other subjects. What causes this type of gap? What can we do to change this?
Before we consider the complex world of data, we need to look at one of the most influential and essential elements in a student’s school career- the teacher. Now we are not just talking about the quality of the teacher. Yes, there are teachers who are less confident, less motivated and even less capable than others. There are teachers who have real difficulties getting the necessary level of behaviour for excellent progress. There are, and I’m sure I’ll be shouted down over this, but we all know it is true, some teachers who really shouldn’t be teachers: the teachers who don’t care about the classes they teach, who don’t plan or teach lessons properly, who don’t mark the student work and some, who frankly don’t seem to like children. When we are looking at this final category, the new government plans to remove the informal part of teacher monitoring and to make it easier to get rid of poor teachers is a good thing. Most teachers have had to pick up the pieces of the group who has had one of these teachers. The group who have made little progress since primary school, those who have not covered the content of the course, and those who fail to mark or even set the necessary work for GCSE. I won’t pull any punches here, if this is the case, and these teachers do not improve their working practices, they should leave, and it should be possible to ensure they leave before they damage the education of even more children. For the teacher, yes it may be a career, but you can’t tell me that a teacher who really tries hard (as the vast majority do) would be in this position or wouldn’t improve with help. The hard core of others need to be removed, and we all know who they are.
However, one of the biggest impacts is down to the expectation of the teacher. This starts at primary school, letting the weaker students do less, expecting less. In some cases, it is down to the set number, deciding, based on an arbitrary number, the ability of a group and the students within it. Those little comments made by the previous teacher which are rarely focused on the achievement and progress of the students. This attitude needs to be stamped out from the very start. In Y11 it is almost impossible to turn this attitude around, and this is a key area that we need to address as teachers. As one of the teachers said in Alistair Smith’s High Performers, what is the point of setting a target below a C, the whole point of a target is that it should be aspirational, it shouldn’t be a given, but we should ensure that we are teaching all students the skills and content they need to achieve this. They may not all get there, but at least we can make sure we have done everything we can to achieve this, whatever the set.