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Digging over the hallowed ground of A-level

When was the last time someone observed you teaching a sixth-form lesson? I would guess a long time ago, if ever. Everyone assumes A-level teachers know what they are doing, and senior managers are reluctant to criticise the teaching of a subject in which they lack "expert" knowledge. We have strategies for literacy, key stage 3 and behaviour, but A-level teaching remains the final secret garden, unplanted in most schools even by schemes of work.

That is why our school last year took part in the National College for School Leadership's "Within School Variation" project. We wanted to open up the hallowed ground of A-level teaching and explore the variation between boys' and girls' performance.

There is plenty of literature on how to raise boys' achievement pre-16, but little on why boys underperform at higher levels. Supported by NCSL's network of regional heads, we formed a working party of interested staff to research the issue.

Did staff use the same techniques to motivate boys in the sixth form that they used lower down the school? Did they have mixed boygirl seating and short-term lesson objectives? Did they use humour, create a competitive ethos and offer concrete rewards? Did they make learning relevant, offer constructive feedback and prompt, targeted advice on how to improve?

We sent questionnaires to staff and students. We interviewed groups of sixth-formers, observed lessons, talked with the sixth-form council and invited parents in to discuss the issue. Yes, said the mothers, they do need short-term targets - and they spend too much time drinking and learning to drive.

Then the light bulb came on. We asked pairs of teachers to set up discussions with each other's classes about what students thought helped their learning. This is brave and risky stuff for teachers. When they discussed the outcomes, enthusiasm shone through. They were energised simply by spending a lesson talking with their class about what worked for them and what did not. A few sacred cows were slaughtered: our personal tutoring system was not valued and the learning objectives on every board for every lesson are apparently a waste of time.

The project has confirmed that techniques used lower down the school to motivate boys hold good for the sixth form. More importantly, it has opened teachers' eyes to the power of involving students in discussing their learning. It is difficult to judge the effect on results because of the small size of A-level groups and the imbalance between numbers of boys and girls.

But boys' results at GCSE were the best ever - just 1 per cent behind the girls. The law of unintended consequences? Or a reminder that serious discussion about learning will always lead to improvement, even if not where you expected.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon

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