This year's educational catchphrase is whole-school improvement. It falls with increasing rapidity from the lips of politicians and coincidentally lands on the pages of Office for Standards in Education diktats. Books abound offering the latest management strategy to improve your school. There is no end of guidance available showing a remarkably high level of agreement.
All well and good, but we got confused; lost somewhere between the vision and the mission. Strategies seem to be complex, with lots of conditions for success and criteria for measuring these conditions, and yet more criteria for measuring the outcomes. In our confusion we found ourselves wondering "but what can schools actually do?". Schools in the Sutton Technical and Vocational Education Initiative network are developing their answer to this question.
We call the scheme we have adopted academic tutoring. Others know it as value-added tutoring. We have seen Sutton schools develop the process and employ it with success, although it is still in its early days. There is ample national evidence that it works at sixth form for A-level students. We can learn from this to make our focus the whole secondary school from Year 7 to Year 14.
The heart of the process is discussion between teacher and student about the student's potential attainment compared with the actual attainment.
In academic tutoring we turn to the past to predict performance. Value-added assessments of exam results are used to evaluate school performance. Thus we take the performance of students at GCSE and compare it with A-level. From this analysis there is a trend. Academic tutoring uses the trend line to predict the A-level results of students who have recently taken GCSE.
Therefore the interview could revolve around the issue: "This is what others with your prior attainment have achieved", and: "Why are your assessment grades so much lower?". Another approach could be: "You are in line with average expectations, why not push into the top quartile for those of your prior attainment?"
The academic tutorial, which is conducted as a business interview, requires time, a venue certain to be free of interruption, clear purpose, an agenda and preparation by students and staff. Students must see the process as an objective review of their performance in order to raise expectations. They will accept critical assessments of their performance if the evidence is clear and objective.
Students should be properly prepared for their interview during group tutorial sessions, at which the agenda and purpose are explained and they review their own performance by collecting and tabulating grades and marks for their subjects.
Realistic but demanding targets are agreed, and then action plans identifying specific tasks are set out. There is no room in such plans for vague intentions such as "working harder". The plan, which is frequently carried in a student's homework diary and is always shared with parents, is reviewed at the next interview.
To develop this process in key stages 3 and 4, schools draw up their own baseline indicators and set them against performance in end-of-year assessments, key stage 3 or GCSE outcomes.
There are many logistical difficulties to overcome in developing academic tutoring: making time for regular one-to-one interviews, creating an assessment policy that gives students and tutors a good flow of information, developing tutors' interview skills and the role of the year head as a learning manager.
It is a demanding process that affects all aspects of school life but the focus on potential in discussion with students puts student-staff relationships on a positive, professional footing. As a result, progress becomes the main concern of the pastoral staff and behaviour management is far less significant. Parents have an active role in supporting their children's efforts to meet the commitments in their action plans. Subject planning is informed by the flow of information between teachers, tutors and students.
In essence, academic tutoring brings the pastoral and academic structures together to enable attainment: the central aim for all school improvement.
John Nash and Hugh Betterton are general secondary inspectors in the London borough of Sutton but are writing in a personal capacity. This article is based on a recent publication "Academic tutoring: developing the process", which is available at Pounds 5.50 from Secondary and Further Education Services, Sutton LEA, Stonecourt, 2 North Street, Carshalton SM5 2lN.