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'How planning for failure can help students succeed'

To break the cycle of underachievement, put the conditions in place to allow your students to blossom, writes Tony Davis

Failure planning avoids some of the commons pitfalls for teachers and students

FE is packed full of perennial problems. Yes, there’s the big stuff around funding and policy volatility, but there’s also a large plot of pernicious issues we grow ourselves. The symptoms start to poke out of the ground around November, then steadily blossom throughout the whole academic year. 

The first indicator that all is not well often shows after the first half term: when learners form into cliques, leaving their “yang” – the loners.

Around Christmas, you might be looking at your progress-monitoring data and see far too many low pass grades for your liking. That the New Year’s doldrums set in is almost a given, escalating some learners’ spiral downwards. And as their motivation declines, inverse proportionality kicks in, leading to a spiral upwards of workload for teachers. You don’t like to see learners fail, so you pour ever more “preventable contact” into them to help them succeed. 

Read more: ‘The best form of CPD? Give teachers time to talk’

More news: 'Boring CPD sessions turn teachers into stroppy teenagers'

Background: Seven signs you were a teacher in the 1980s

'Hunting for the root-cause issues'

One of the big differences between teachers and learners is that teachers have imbued more consequential thought. They know that if learners are continually missing their attainment milestones, they’re going to underperform, fail or give up and leave early. The darling learners, however, hear these sentiments – but, unlike teachers, have a knack of not being troubled by them. And so we arrive at May and the final forecast for this year’s outturn: the perennial problems have overgrown the garden. 

And just as the last gram of gumption is being offered up for your Ofsted-fearing achievement rates, the annual self-assessment cycle begins and you throw your wits ends in the air. Just like last year. 

And it’s right now – spring, not summer – that the hunt for the root-cause issues should begin. In a moment, I’ll share with you some of the strategies my consultancy uses, but first, let me say a word about self-assessment. 

The importance of asking

I love self-assessment. It’s the most creative part of anyone’s day job – or should be. A little while ago, we developed something of a revolutionary approach to self-assessment. Very briefly, it’s this: throw away the Ofsted common inspection framework (CIF) headings and replace them with seven empty boxes – one for each step of the learner’s journey: recruitment; induction; teaching, learning and assessment; progress monitoring; support, achievement; and progression.

Look at every indicator of underperformance you can find, and ask yourself: “So why’s that?” If you ask “why” enough times, you’ll eventually get to the root cause of the adverse symptom you’re looking at. Now here’s the really good part: place the root-cause issue in the most appropriate of the seven boxes. 

Spoiler alert... In which boxes do you think most of the root-cause issues lie? Recruitment and induction. And which two aspects of the learner’s journey does the Ofsted CIF not require you to self-assess against? Recruitment and induction. Ironic, isn’t it? Get induction right and you reap the benefits all year. Get it wrong and you make life hard for yourself all year. 

Planning for failure?

When working with education providers on innovative solutions to perennial problems, we often start with a bit of “failure planning”. Sounds a bit odd, I know, but bear with me. Let’s look at a specific scenario, say, the induction of learners into their GCSE English and/or maths resit class. “Failure planning” requires you to set out what you’d do from month one, week one, day one, minute one if you wanted all of your learners to fail. Delegates normally attack this exercise with gusto: “Test them so that they can confirm how terrible they are!” “Make sure the room is too small for the class size!” “Move the room every week!” “Let the group get established, then move half of them into a different group!” “Keep changing the teacher!” You get the picture. Delegates also normally give an ironic chuckle as they shout out their answers, as they’re often doing no more than describing custom and practice. 

So what would you do from minute one if you wanted all of your learners to succeed? Certainly none of the above. Part of the answer lies in a bit of unashamedly aspirational thinking: what skills and attributes do you want your learners to have by the end of the extended induction period (normally considered to be the week after October half term)? Go on – make a list. Once you have your list, ask yourself if your current induction practice enables you to achieve your aspiration. If not, then you have to do the extended induction period differently. You know the old saying: “Madness is doing the same thing over and over…”

When working with one English and maths team, their eureka moment came through asking themselves why learners should master these “terrible two” subjects. The answer? “Because maths gives you a great problem-solving capability and English enables you to understand things.” The result? The team developed a Crystal Maze-style game. They put a desk at the entrance to their corridor, grouped learners into teams as they arrived and hit “go” on the stopwatch. 

Learners then had to get a little sweaty running around all of the English and maths rooms solving cryptic problems, at the end of which the clock was stopped. And the impact? Learners kept returning to the English and maths GCSE resit induction experience to try to beat their previous time. A far cry, I’m sure you will agree, from them sitting a test as quickly as they can.

So, the moral of this story is that if you want the flowers to bloom instead of the weeds, you need to create the right conditions for them to grow. Set out the skills and attributes you want learners to have by October half term, then redesign your schemes of work to achieve them.

Tony Davis is director of the Centre for Creative Quality Improvement

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