Listen to the message from the classroom;Platform;Opinion

4th September 1998 at 01:00
The views of children are essential to policy and practice on achievement,say Julie Allan and Margaret Doran

The relationship between the sponsors of research and researchers is often characterised by wariness and uncertainty about outcomes. Over the past two years, Stirling University and Stirling Council education services have developed a partnership involving funded research which has focused on local policy concerns.

The research has fed directly into the council's "raising achievement" strategy and has enhanced the university's initial teacher education programme with highly relevant research findings. It has also encouraged our sense of a local education community in which the authority and the university are working towards the common goal of raising achievement.

The research partnership was initiated in response to widespread concerns about the underachievement of pupils in the first two years of secondary school. The HMI reports on Achievement for All and Achieving Success in S1 and S2 contained allegations that too many pupils were falling behind and documented a variety of causes. Central to this were problems of secondary school organisation, and schools were urged to consider the use of setting by ability and direct teaching.

The recommendation to set was somewhat at odds with the findings from a review of research on setting and streaming, which the Scottish Office had commissioned from the Scottish Council for Research in Education. This concluded that separating pupils by ability in S1 and S2 offers only a small advantage to high-achieving pupils at the expense of low-achieving pupils. The authors, Wynne Harlen and Heather Malcolm, suggested that within-class ability groupings could provide greater scope for meeting the needs of all individuals than either setting or streaming.

The council's response was cautious. It established a working party and commissioned research from Stirling University, undertaken between October 1996 and March 1997, which asked senior management and principal teachers about the nature and causes of underachievement.

The research also included observation of pupils considered to be underachieving. The phenomenon, which had been acknowledged publicly as a problem, was extremely difficult to pin down: teachers could identify pupils they considered to be underachieving but found it less easy to find supporting evidence. Observation of individual "underachievers" was equally inconclusive. The observation did, however, highlight some possible factors, relating to pupils, teaching and school organisation, which might limit the pupils' achievements.

Phase two of the research (October 1997-February 1998) shifted from the negative and somewhat unhelpful concept of underachievement to a broader focus on children's achievement. This strand of the research explored levels of attainment in science within the 5-14 environmental studies programme and investigated pupils' perceptions of learning and teaching and support in S1 and S2.

The science strand focused specifically on recording and presenting at level D in science, and involved interviews with members of a cluster group and subsequent meetings to discuss the findings. The variable emphasis on science within primaries, contrasting perceptions between primary and secondary teachers about science within environmental studies and some concerns about teacher confidence and resources within primary schools are currently being considered by the council, and clarification is being sought from the Scottish Office about the future development of science within the 5-14 programme.

Second-year pupils from three schools were interviewed in homogeneous ability and gender groups. The positive features identified by the pupils were consistent with HMI's notion of direct teaching: good explanations, followed by questioning of individuals; formal and informal assessment, providing feedback on progress; and friendly teachers, who maintained good class discipline.

The pupils' negative comments reflected HMI's concerns about inadequate differentiation by some teachers, particularly for high and low-ability pupils; a lack of continuity and progression from primary to secondary; "time-wasting" activities such as extended copying; and the apparent irrelevance of the content of some subjects. The most striking feature of the pupils' accounts was that they appeared to lack ways of talking about their learning. So involving pupils more centrally in their own learning is a central feature of Stirling's "raising achievement" strategy and the focus of this year's research.

As well as being asked more searching questions about their perceptions of learning, pupils will be invited to examine the aspects of the council's strategy which relate to them as learners. They will be encouraged to suggest ways of turning into reality targets such as "improving learner self-esteem and self-confidence" and "preparing learners appropriately for the world of work".

The Stirling University research has supported the council's commitment to raising achievement by providing evidence about aspects of teaching and learning within its own schools and raising issues for debate. As the partnership has developed, so has our understanding of these issues and of ways forward.

Setting remains on the agenda, but we recognise that children, as the most important members of the local education community, have to become more central in policy and practice. So they have been recruited to help raise their own achievement, and we look forward to hearing what they have to say.

Julie Allan is a lecturer in the Institute of Education at Stirling University and Margaret Doran is the head of services to schools in Stirling Council.

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