A test of responsibility

19th January 1996 at 00:00
It's a confident school that devotes an INSET day to a far-reaching new project just three school weeks before an Office for Standards in Education inspection. But the teachers I met at Chipping Sodbury school, seemed to be taking it in their stride.

Chipping Sodbury is a little further down the high reliability track than Marlwood (right). It adopted the project in December 1994, and a year later staff were already getting into the finer points of what research reveals about effective teaching.

"The more the project goes on the more it seems to offer us," says headteacher, Kath Phillips. "What I wanted was for it to get us to focus on individual pupils, and their needs and concerns." But it has apparently provided wider insights.

The school has 855 students. Staff were slightly taken aback a couple of years ago, when numbers suddenly dipped. That led to a lot of evaluation and activity, including analysing exam results more thoroughly and improving reporting systems. The new data for Year 7, Year 10 and the Sixth Form has already given staff a clearer picture of the school's intake, which has fewer high ability children than would be expected from its apparently leafy surroundings.

For all her enthusiasm, it wasn't the head who first advocated the Highly Reliable Schools project. A small group of teachers went on an in-service course 18 months ago and heard David Reynolds. They came back full of enthusiasm, wanting to take part.

Mel Jeffries, a senior teacher who was one of that group, says: "A lot of things had been happening at once. We were focusing on individual students' GCSE and A level performance... the High Reliability project gave all this a higher profile: it all seemed to fit together."

As at Marlwood, the high spot of Chipping Sodbury's in-service day in December was the session where participants gathered in groups who all taught the same Year 7 class, and looked at evidence about the potential and achievement of individual pupils. As well as the project's intelligence and reading test data, they had the key stage 2 national test scores, primary records and the teachers' own experiences.

Cath Sell, head of Year 7, says: "It was a great step forward to have the whole staff talking about individual pupils, with the fullest possible information." However, Year 8 head, Jenny Clark found it frustrating: "I feel I'll be doing interviews with students with one hand tied behind my back. "

In another session, members of different faculties discussed strategies to reach pupils of differing abilities and aptitudes. The task was to plan a Year 7 topic for the next half term, with provision for the needs highlighted earlier.

Both schools found pupils whose scores on the non-verbal reasoning test were surprising. At Chipping Sodbury some staff were already thinking about how to follow up the project's suggestion to "trace back" into pupils' previous educational experience.

The aim is to find out why there are anomalies between potential and performance - what went particularly wrong or right for some children, when and why. Kath Phillips feels teachers may not be the best people to do it, and might bring in sixth formers or college students to ask pupils about significant educational experiences.

Both schools were aware this could lead to sensitive situations with local primary schools - but at least one primary headteacher has already shown a keen interest in the HRS project, and asked for any insights about their former pupils.

When it came to choosing the school's own targets for the project, Chipping Sodbury already had two in its development plan. One is that every pupil should achieve as highly as she can. This isn't easy to measure, let alone achieve, but the school's senior management is now committed to providing reliable information about individual students' potential and performance, and making it available to all teachers for every student they teach.

The second target is that every student will be able to show one significant achievement, other than examination success, which has been made possible because of opportunities at school, within or outside the formal curriculum.

A lot of feedback from teachers on their second HRS inset day mainly supported Kath Phillips' view that it was "one of the most positive in-service exercises we've ever done". As at Marlwood, there were questions about the validity and significance of the project tests. "We're not about to let a cognitive test override our professional judgement," says a teacher. "It's not about testing, it's about getting more and better information to work with," says the head.

The big issue for teachers was, almost inevitably, time. On their feedback sheets several called for time for planning, preparation and evaluation, "to absorb all this info", "look at discrepancies", and "share ideas with other teachers".

If the HRS project comes to be seen as a means to make better use of available staff time, it could be a successful strategy for school improvement. If it is seen by a lot of teachers as just another bolt-on initiative, it is likely to fizzle out.

The experience at Marlwood and Chipping Sodbury at this very early stage suggests that it could provide a framework for switching attention from the crude evidence of league tables, with all the attendant complacency, alibis or excuses, to detailed analysis of the potential, progress and achievement of each pupil.

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