No more talk of lean and good years

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Sharper focus on individuals is more useful than generalisations about a year group, argues John Forster, who put his form tutors to work to that end

Every head of a secondary school would no doubt say that raising the attainment of individual pupils was a prime aim - the prime aim, perhaps. Yet, equally, there is no doubt that exposure to the chill wind of public scrutiny has exposed a degree of complacency which was there in our schools, however reluctant we might be to admit it, and which led us to believe that whatever we were achieving was the best we could achieve.

As head of a large and successful 11-18 comprehensive school in a high-performing local education authority, I would have to plead guilty myself.

Examination results at King James's had always been among the best in the county and a matter of considerable pride.

However, the combination of a pilot Office for Standards in Education inspection in November 1992 and the publication of the first exam league tables in the same year caused us to take a fresh look at the reality of those academic results.

To take the published results first. I think all heads have been tempted to suggest that there is a cyclical inevitability in variations in exam results. We have traditionally talked of "good" and "lean" years much as we describe the relative strengths of our school netball or football teams. (Whether this traditional labelling will bear close scrutiny or is a risky generalisation based on anecdotal information is another matter, which I shall come back to.) Be that as it may, in 1992 and 1993 we at KJS had two of our weakest sets of GCSE results and a pass rate at grades C and above of slightly more than 50 per cent in successive years. Although local reaction to this was muted, there is no doubt that these results, which were not markedly better than those of other schools normally regarded by parents as being less successful, did have an impact and we experienced a dip in parental confidence and diminished recruitment to the sixth form. This was the result both of reduced motivation to continue in full-time education and in their readiness to look at alternative post-16 providers.

At the same time our OFSTED inspection had as its pre-inspection information this particular set of relatively disappointing results. Although the report was an outstanding one with which we were delighted, it identified two of key issues: the need to look closely at ways of extending the achievement particularly of our most able students and the need to address the relative success of girls compared with boys.

These two factors provided the incentive to embark on a thoroughgoing investigation of how successful we were in realising the full potential of all our students. The results have been of unmitigated benefit to individual youngsters and, in at least one aspect, taught us as teachers something that we didn't sufficiently appreciate already - the crucial influence on academic performance of the work of the pastoral tutor.

The first task we set ourselves was to build up a much better profile of the academic potential of each individual student within a year group and summarise this information in a way that couldbe easily and immediately assimilated.

We gave all our Year 7 intake, once they were settled in, an National Foundation for Educational Research sentence-completion test. This test had been carefully trialled by a working group in school and it became clear that it offered the best guide to pupil potential and was also a good predictor of performance at GCSE (much better, for instance, than primary school gradings).

On to this base were added end- of-Year-7 attainment grades in English and maths. This database was then continued in Year 8 with a second NFER test and in Year 9 with key stage 3 national test levels. Since the introduction of key stage 2 national tests these have been incorporated also. All results are shown on an A-E scale.

We had, in any case, had a hunch that there was a falling off of achievement in Year 8 and this year group seemed a good one, for a variety of reasons, to have a closer look at. A working group with representatives from all sections of the staff have been doing this for some time and, quite apart from the general database research, have been considering other ways of collecting evidence such as classroom observation and scrutiny of work. (A group of senior staff recently scrutinised the exercise books of all those pupils in Year 8 identified by staff as under-achieving and looked for common factors. The working group also drew up a list of indicators of classroom behaviour which might encourage focus on the specific characteristics of an individuals success or failure in class).

Recent mid-year reports for Year 8 gave the opportunity for further analyses. The attainment grades achieved by individuals were averaged out and compared with their NFER grade.

This process revealed that while most of the year were working to full potential, a significant minority were not and the bulk of these were boys.

However the listing of these results, for convenience, in tutor groups threw up something really unexpected and quite challenging. It was clear that the under-achievers were clustered in particular tutor groups - or, putting it more positively - the achievers were more numerous in certain tutor groups. If this is not just an accident - and we are confident it isn't - we have stumbled upon an immensely significant factor in student achievement and one which markedly enhances the role of form tutor.

During my headship we have tried to overlap pastoral and academic roles. We have, for instance, in recent years allocated an additional non-teaching lesson to all our form tutors for pupil interviews and target-setting. We have also tried to make the student planner, which superseded the old homework diary, a fruitful link betweenstudent, subject teacher, tutor and parent.

Nonetheless I don't think any of us had fully appreciated how central the role of tutor might be in influencing academic success. It has now become clear that carefully planned use of tutor time has enabled some tutors to develop a crucial advisory role in relation to the young people they see daily. This has partly taken the form of specific activity such as monitoring homework through the planner, showing an interest in particular pieces of work and offering judicious praise, giving advice on note-taking and revision, emphasising the importance of presentation and layout of notes and information in the planner.

The other important factor has been more general - it is the way in which at the start of the day the tutor establishes the work ethos by requiring a degree of appropriate formality, insisting on times when there must be full attention and silence, in other words establishing a range of proper teacherstudent interactions which set the tone for the rest of the working day. All tutors now are conscious of these factors which we have listed for them.

We have taken the same detailed look at Year 11, and a great deal of staff time from all sections has been given to individual and group guidance with the pleasing outcome that in the past two years our pass rate at GCSE has been well over 60 per cent and recruitment to the sixth form has been very strong - 160 out of last year's Year 11 of 230.

However, the gender issue remains a live one and we know if we could get our boys' performance to match that of our girls that figure would be nearer 70 per cent. The fact that achievement differences disappear at A-level is little consolation. We are hopeful, though, that the work lower down the school on the gender issue will start to pay off.

Sound information about the potential and achievement of each pupil will, I am confident, make it much less likely that we shall indulge in talk of good or lean years in the future. Or, if we do, there will be a sounder basis for it.

* John Forster is head of King James's School, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire

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