Most of what makes classrooms work is invisible. The activities that teachers and students enact are, by and large, irrelevant. I’m aware that this runs the risk of sounding like preposterous nonsense, but I think it’s true. The here and now of lessons and classrooms is dependent on the routines and relationships that have been forged over time. If you’re clear about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, firm and fair in applying consequences and provide meaningful feedback on how pupils’ can improve it almost doesn’t matter what you do in a lesson. And vice versa: if you neglect these things, no amount of creative and engaging planning will compensate. In a nutshell, if you know your pupils your teaching is likely to be effective. If you don’t, it won’t.

But what kind of knowledge? It’s all very well forming fantastic relationships with the kids you teach, but if this doesn’t inform their progress then you’re not doing your job. Great teachers will know both the data and the individuals.


Knowing individuals takes time. In a primary setting teachers get to see their charges for upwards of 20 hours a week, but many secondary teachers will only see some pupils for a one solitary hour per week. How on earth can we get to know the kids we teach when we see so little of them? The first step is to know and use their names.There are some kids whose names you will know before the end of your first lesson with a class. And there are others whose names you will struggle to conjure when facing their parents on parents’ evening. It’s inevitable that the gobbier a pupil is, the quicker you will get to know them. But there are some fairly obvious things you can do to get to know the others. For me, if I use a pupil’s name, I will get to know them. For this reason alone seating plans are worth their salt. Without them I’m likely to descend to gesturing weakly at a sea of faces and saying, ‘Yes, you.’ But having a print out of my plan to hand ensures that I can direct questions at individuals confident that I know who I’m addressing. Once I know my pupils’ names, everything else starts to fall into place and you can start joining the dots of their lives.

Talking to colleagues is of course an essential part of getting the low down on kids, but a more overlooked avenue for getting to know pupils is through their parents. I endeavour to make three phone calls everyday. Some of these may be in response to incidents (positive as well as negative) that have cropped up during the day, but others are made as I work my way through the classlist. Parents, generally, love teachers taking an interest. A quick call to say that their son or daughter is making progress/coasting/lagging behind works wonders. It’s become clear to me that complaining to parents about their offspring is not normally a successful strategy. I try to make a point to focus all discussions on progress rather than on behaviour. Few indeed are the parents who are completely uninterested in their children’s academic progress and, even if they’re powerless to help, they still want to know.

And then there’s marking. As well as all the other excellent reasons for making kids’ books, you also get to know them through their work. On one level you learn about their effort and ability but you also get to see what kind of a person they are. We English teachers are afforded privileged access into our pupils’ minds due to the nature of our subject. Reading creative writing can be very revealing. Pupils often choose to enact their worries and fears in response to creative writing tasks and along with sundry expositions on summer holidays and day trips I’ve read harrowing accounts of the death of parents, cases of possible abuse and the struggle for identity. The fact that this stuff goes unread in some classrooms appalls me.


But knowing all this stuff and remaining ignorant of the data is the realm of social workers, not teachers. It’s a professional duty to know where they are, where they should be heading and what they need to do to get there. And hopefully it won’t surprise you to learn that slapping a level or grade on the front of exercise books is not good practice.

Targets are a lie. Schools are given data on the statistical likelihood of pupils achieving particular grades and schools generally select the grade with the highest statistical likelihood and serve it up as a target. I’ve written before about how to subvert target grades and if you’ve not read it before I urge you to have a look. Finding out that a pupil has a B grade target tells us very little. But getting your hands on the full spread of data is enormously powerful:

G F E D C B A A*
1% 1% 1% 6.6% 31.7% 39.2% 18.2% 3.5%

Looking at this we can see that while this pupils has a 39.2% chance of getting their B grade, they have a 60% chance of getting something else. In this case, a C is almost as likely so there’s no room for complacency. But also, over 20% of pupils with identical attainment at KS2 went on to get an A-A*. Why? Well, of course the reasons will be many and complex but it’s worth having a conversation here about the virtues of hard work, determination and deliberate practice.

Another way to use the data available to get to know your students is to place them on a transition matrix.

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We can use this to work out whether our pupils are on track to make expected progress. As you can see, Chloe and Lara aren’t and Luke and Ryan are. Let’s hear it for the boys! This data is dead easy to get hold of and going through the process of working out where your pupils are is excellent professional development. Maybe this could be a productive way to spend a department meeting?

But still, this data only gives us part of the picture. Why are Chloe and Lara under-performing? And what can we do about it? Well, our first port of call is more data!

  • Chloe: 90% attendance, FSM
  • Luke: 86% attendance, young carer
  • Ryan: 100% attendance, mild, high performing autism
  • Lara: 76% attendance, G&T, LAC

Looking at attendance figures as well as the plethora of information schools hold on their pupils can be jolly useful. Lara, as a looked after child must be a high priority. Clearly her attendance is a major factor in her lack of progress, and, just in case we hadn’t worked it out, she’s bright. So what can we do?

The solution at Clevedon School has been to find ways to encourage teachers to make use of all the data that surrounds them. Each term, teachers are expected to select 5 pupils per class and put together a brief Pen Portrait which takes account of the data as well as the teacher’s knowledge of the pupil. The idea is that each portrait ought to include a strategy or approach that the teacher will make the pupil aware of on how they can support them to make progress. Teachers have a clearer idea of the data an pupils know their teachers are trying to tailor lessons to meet their specific needs.

This isn’t a panacea. Obviously, it’s not fool-proof and any attempt to reduced human beings to something so simplistic is fraught with problems, but it’s a damn good start. I’m sure there are other, more creative approaches to inclusion and differentiation out there, but as yet I’ve not become aware of them. In the meantime, Pen Portraits might be a workable solution to getting to know your pupils.

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