As you may be aware, non-selective secondary schools are failing the ‘most able’. How do we know? Because a brand new Ofsted report tells us so.
The report’s key findings include such revelations as the fact that “expectations of what the most able students should achieve are too low” and that not enough has been done “to create a culture of scholastic excellence” which leads, unsurprisingly, to, “Many students become used to performing at a lower level than they are capable of.”
The problem is attributed to ineffective transition arrangements, poor Key Stage 3 curricula and early entry to GCSE exams. Homework also gets a bashing; too much of it is “insufficiently challenging” and “fails to interest students, extend their thinking or develop their skills.”
The result is that “just over a quarter of the pupils who achieved Level 5 in English and mathematics at the end of Year 6 did not make the progress expected of them in their non-selective secondary schools”.
So that’s that: QED.
Now you may well quibble, as Geoff Barton has done over their means of measurement and the woeful laziness of many newspaper reports but really, I find it hard to argue with the likelihood that secondary schools’ expectations of their students are way too low.
I know I’ve certainly been guilty of this. A few years ago I taught a girl called Charlotte. Charlotte had an E grade target and, I confess, my expectations of her were low. In the opening weeks of Year 10 she told me that she wanted to get an A grade and I, to my shame, tried to manage her expectations and let her know that his was unlikely. It would be enough of a miracle if she were to managed a C! The first piece of coursework she turned in was a lowly D. She was devastated. She took it away (remember, this was the old days) acted on my advice and handed in a C grade essay. I was chuffed; she was still devastated. She took her English GCSE at the end of Year 10 (something else we’re now no longer allowed to do) and got a C. Two grades above her target grade. By this time I knew she’d be gutted with this result, and she was. She still professed cock-eyed, unwavering faith she could get an A. But, I knew she couldn’t. Obviously.
I’m sure you can see where this is going, can’t you? Charlotte continued to plug away and retook the exam in November getting a B grade. C’mon, I told her. Enough’s enough. Be happy with your B. But she wasn’t and retook for a third time in June of Year 11. And still she didn’t get an A.
She got an A*.
Now you can say what you like about lack of challenge and low expectations and the wonky Key Stage 3 curriculum and early entry being the enemy of promise; this girl was a grafter. She believed that she could be better than she was. No one ever told her she was gifted at anything, and she didn’t care; she knew that if she worked hard enough she could get what she wanted.
Of course for every Charlotte I’ve taught a thousand kids with nothing like her mindset or capacity for trying. Many of these were identified as G&T and went on to coast a B grade or similar. But Charlotte taught me far more than probably I ever managed to teach her. She taught me that my expectations were, for most kids, a determining factor in their achievement. And what’s the point in having high expectations for just some of our students? Where on earth is the sense in picking off our ‘most able’ 10% and deciding to push this elite to scholastic excellence? Charlotte taught me that this was a nonsense and that effort always trumps talent.
Tom Bennett gives us The Orthodoxy in his TES article How best are the gifted lifted? Above average, but below the radar: the problem of G&T kids. His solution is based on the following these 3 familiar steps:
- identify your potential brainiacs,
- provide something special for them, and then
- monitor that this hothousing is having the desired effect.
I have absolutely no argument with point 2 and 3. None. But, oh my goodness! I’m not at all happy with point 1. To his credit Tom does say that “high expectations should be tattooed inside our hearts for every child, until the minute they leave school for good – maybe not even then.” Quite right. But how does corralling the boffins and treating them differently serve this aim?
Take out the word ‘gifted’ and this could be a marvellous manifesto:
Teachers need to be trained more clearly on simple techniques that can revolutionise the work a gifted pupil does, eg setting them tasks a year above their age; accelerating them into the year above (astounding, but caution required); asking for work to be redone – after school if necessary – if it doesn’t meet the required level. Forcing yourself to give them time in lessons to explain things at a higher level, just as if they were as important as a weaker kid (fancy that); setting slightly different homework, and so on.
I get that Tom, and Ofsted for that matter, are berating us for chasing the grail of the C/D borderline, but still.
Grammar school head Tom Sherrington talks about having a Total G&T Philosophy and how lessons should be designed with rigour and high expectations to ‘lift the lid’ to what students can achieve. He advocates that we should ‘teach to the top’ instead of the usual slow ball middle pitch Tom Bennett describes. And yes, teach to the top, support at the bottom. Everyone’s aspirations are raised and they start to believe in they can achieve more than they ever believed possible.
I had the pleasure of hearing Mr Sherrington speak about his approach to teaching yesterday and one throwaway line got me thinking. He said something about teachers often removing layers of complexity because kids would be turned off if the work seemed too hard. Instead he suggested giving kids work which seems impossible. What if we scrapped our Year 7 curriculum and just taught ’em the Year 8 stuff? Would it matter? And this got me thinking: maybe I could try teaching work which ‘seems impossible to see what’s possible’?
Last week I taught a transition lesson to a class of Year 6 students to prepare them for the ‘step up’ to big school. I didn’t find out I would be doing this until that morning and just for the hell of it I decided to teach them a lesson I’d taught to my Year 11s on analysing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. At the end of the lesson I asked them to tell me on a scale of 1 – 10 how hard the work had been (1 being insultingly easy, 10 being ear bleedingly difficult.) And guess what? They gave me a 5! When I told them the lesson’s provenance I’m not sure if they were more impressed with themselves or disappointed by the lack of challenge presented by GSCEs. The point was, I treated them all as if they could do it and, by God, they could do it!
If I’d told ’em in advance that they were going to tackle poetry from the GCSE Literature anthology it might have ‘seemed impossible’. But now maybe (maybe) they’ve seen what’s possible.
What if they’d been streamed as Wilshaw suggests and all the ‘gifted’ kids fed a steady diet of ‘scholastic excellence’? What kind of message does this give to everyone else?
Every year I expect my students to get A grades. And every year I’m disappointed when some don’t. I’m sure, come August, I’ll be disappointed again. Never mind, next year I can try again and fail better.