As per a medical history, a student’s academic history generates a prognosis for their future. E.g. if Connor is a ‘Level 4’ at science at 11 he is given a ‘likelihood’ of get a ’C’ at GCSE, and a ‘B’ if we’re being optimistic. Schools spend hours poring over their data, spending thousands on commercially available software to extract this information and pump out colour-coded sheets showing which students are going off-track or benchmarking them against schools with comparable intakes.
For a long time my main task has been explaining how the information is calculated, answering questions about its reliability and helping colleagues see if their scores were as expected. [Note: they usually are. Most teachers are very good at knowing when their students are not performing well, and when their classes are performing less well than those led by colleagues]. More recently however I have been spending more time answering the following question: “Okay, so this data-extract shows that 20% of my students are under-performing, but what can I do about it?”
Heads of Department are increasingly attending scheduled meetings with senior management who expect Department Heads to devise ‘interventions’ for realigning students who veer off the statistically-normal path. The Coalition policy of a ‘Pupil Premium’ requires schools to use the money for ‘interventions’ leading to greater achievement among poorer students. But at every discussion or INSET I have attended on data, at every government meeting or policy discussion when I ask what – exactly – the money should be spent on, or what interventions have been shown to work, few concrete solutions are provided.
Without such knowledge department leaders do what they know how to do – they teach more of the same. They offer up their own time for ‘extra classes’ – provided at weekends or during holidays. Alternatively they ask for students to leave other subjects to focus on theirs – for example, students not adequately progressing in Maths & English are often asked to relinquish options subjects, even if these are where their strengths lie.
In almost all cases, the ‘interventions’ I have seen simply provide more of what was already not working. Extra classes tend to be taught by the same person, and in the same style, as the lessons that previously failed to deliver student progress.
So, what to do? The answer is simple – get beyond the numerical data. In a recent INSET I was asked to draw a student in my form and annotate it with all the things I knew about him. Afterwards I was given a chances graph from the CEM centre – a series of graphs showing the ‘odds’ of a child getting GCSE grades A*-G. Using these graphs and data about the student’s current predicted grade we were asked to think about what conversation we could have with the student that might encourage them to be aspirational and achieve their highest possible grade.
Almost every teacher focused solely on the sheet with the chances. Conversations merely reflected the information the student would see if given the sheet: “You are most likely to get a C, but you have a 20% chance of getting a B or a 20% chance of getting a D”. Some conversations veered into cynicism “Although this graph says you have a 10% chance of an A, with your level of behaviour that is very unrealistic” while others simply failed to understand the statistics at all.
It was startling how few teachers turned over their page. Remember, behind those graphs we all had a picture and important data about our student. My data included the following notes:
- Likes rugby league
- Very body conscious, wants to be old enough to go the gym
- Wants to visit America because he likes films
- Mature but sometimes hides this when he wants to be ‘one of the boys’
While these statements are not numbers, they are still data. What is important cannot always be measured, and simply because we can measure the chances of a GCSE grade it does not make it the most important information that we have.
In fact, the reason why teachers so often struggle to create meaningful intervention is because they do so based on a discussion solely around numbers. They forget the real student behind those figures. Surely, once I know the student’s grade prognosis, the stuff I know about what they spend their time on is the information that can help me decide on a personalised intervention. Whilst ‘extra lessons’ will work for some students, perhaps we would do better to tie this students’ academic work to his love of sport or if we asked his teachers to separate him from the peer group that he plays up to. In his article“What’s Your Story- Teaching for Diversity” (based on his work for Canterbury Christ Church University), Loic described this approach as an understanding of “pupil biographies”. He argued that one of the key benefits of it is to increase engagement, rapport and therefore achievement.
If you are a Head of Department being urged to ‘provide’ interventions, or you are a Senior Leader demanding intervention plans from middle leaders, I urge you to ask your teachers to complete this exercise. Have them write all the information they know about a student on a piece of paper and use it to create a personalised intervention package rather than continuing with more of the same. After all, if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.
Laura McInerney is a Policy Development Partner. At L.K.M Consulting we work with senior leaders to analyse data for school performance, with middle leaders to identify the students most in need of support and with classroom teachers to gauge progression. After careful analysis we can support leaders and teachers design and implement intervention strategies that support student achievement and find the key to pupil progress.