Plain truths about higher fliers

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Improving pupils' performance depends on raising expectations and paying close attention to every aspect of school life. Kate Myers reports.

Raising achievement seems to be the flavour of the moment. Everyone's for it, but what exactly is it? Achievement is, of course, more than examination results. It is not that they are unimportant; qualifications are the passport to further education and job opportunities, particularly for the students in our inner-cities. Schools consequently have a duty to help them do as well as they possibly can.

In his Improving Secondary Schools report to the Inner London Education Authority in 1984, David Hargreaves and his colleagues proposed four kinds of achievement for consideration. They were: Aspect 1 - dealing with the capacity to remember and use facts Aspect 2 - practical and spoken skills Aspect 3 - personal and social skills Aspect 4 - motivation andself-confidence The Hargreaves committee was aware that this was a crude analysis and open to criticism; nevertheless they felt that it was better than the "everyday and popular conceptions of achievement and underachievement, which stress aspect 1 and so often under-emphasise aspects 2 to 4". It is depressing to think that 10 years, with the publication of examination results and league tables, and despite records of achievement, if anything the media has focused more and more on aspect 1 and less and less on other kinds of achievement. Somehow we need to raise the status of these aspects of achievement.

What can we do?

A primary or secondary school receiving a large proportion of children who are already underachieving in relation to their age and potential is bound to have to work harder to achieve the same standards as those with more favourable intakes. But even after prior achievement is taken into account, schools differ and some are more "effective" than others. According to Peter Mortimore, director of the London Institute of Education, a more effective school is one in which pupils progress further than might be expected from consideration of its intake.

International research on primary and secondary school effectiveness has established a range of characteristics found in the more effective schools. The School Matters study (Mortimore et al 1988), found that the more effective schools had : * Purposeful leadership by the headteacher * Involvement of the deputy headin decision-making * Teacher involvement indecision-making * Consistent teaching philosophy * Pupil autonomy * Intellectually challenging teachingthat emphasised high expectations * A busy, work-centred environment * Limited focus within sessions * Maximum communication between teachers and pupils * Academic and social development records * Parental involvement * A positive climate Other studies have emphasised the importance of schools being "learning communities" where both staff and students see themselves as able to learn, reflect, develop and improve. Research into school effectiveness is helpful in so far as it identifies these characteristics and consequently allows schools to evaluate themselves in these areas. It does not, however, show how these factors can be established. School improvement research and the "managing change" literature attend more to this area.

How do we do it?

There are many school improvement projects taking place around the country. The project I am involved with is called Schools Make a Difference and involves all the secondary schools in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Strategies used are based on the research mentioned earlier and have fallen into four groups: * Directly affecting students * Directly affecting staff * Improving the learning environment * Working with parents.

The schools all produced project plans directly related to their existing school development plans. This was to try and ensure that the project was used to support needs already identified by the staff and would not be seen as an "add-on".

The strategies directly affecting pupils include running Easter revision centres, half-term coursework clinics and a variety of homework clubs and after-school enrichment classes. In a survey, many pupils said that they had nowhere appropriate to study without distractions at home. Although this may be the case for many young people around the country, I suspect that it is particularly so for those living in inner-city areas where housing is likely to be more crowded. In another inner-city area, Birmingham, the chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, is hoping to introduce a " University of the First Age" so that young people have access to enrichment opportunities at summer schools provided in the summer holidays.

Students who take advantage of these schemes (and we found it was not only those who were motivated at school) have access to the course content and study support provided, but because they are volunteers, and are treated as responsible learners, the benefits (and knock-on effects of their relationship with their teachers) are infinite. Several of the characteristics associated with effective schools can be encouraged by this type of provision: pupil autonomy and intellectually challenging teaching, emphasising high expectations, a busy, work-centred environment and maximum communication between teachers and pupils.

There are, of course, costs, but apart from all the benefits listed above, it could be a relatively cheap way of moving towards the National Education and Training Targets (NETTs) set up by the Government to encourage higher achievement (see right).

Other strategies directly affecting students include school councils, special celebration events, mentoring, target-setting and action planning. In addition, most of the project schools participated in the Keele university survey of pupils' perception of school life. The results of these surveys are being studied and provide a fascinating account of what the students think of their school experience.

The strategies directly affecting staff include seminars and conferences connected with school effectiveness and visits to "interesting schools" around the country to observe good practice and share ideas. Cover time is available for staff to develop materials or visit other schools where good practice is known to exist in their subject area. Several of the schools are developing flexible learning strategies. Teachers is one school are using the cover time as part of a "critical friend" scheme where they observe each other in the classroom in order to learn from each other. Some staff are submitting the work they are undertaking for the project towards an advanced diploma. Teachers who see themselves as "learners" contribute to and endorse a learning culture in the school. In these schools, students are encouraged to see themselves as life-long learners.

Each school had money allocated to improve the learning environment. Pupils, staff and parents were involved in formulating the proposals and the results include the creation of flexible learning centres; improvement of display areas to exhibit pupils' work; refurbishment of pupils' toilets, entrances and corridors; creation of pupil study and common room facilities; carpeting of corridors, staircases and classrooms; picnic benches and litter bins for the playground; stages to encourage pupils to participate in public events and the provision of lockers for pupils.

The connection between some of these environmental improvements and the raising of achievement may seem tenuous at first. Fifteen Thousand Hours (Rutter et al, 1979), a study of what made some schools more effective than others, found a "significant association between good pupil behaviour and good maintenance of decorations and care of the building generally".

The Schools Make a Difference project wanted to extend this idea by encouraging student participation in decisions about this aspect of school life. As the money had to be spent within the financial year, the students were able to see the results of their discussions. It is hoped that this will have an effect on students' self-esteem and morale, both of which can contribute to their achievement.

Parental involvement is considered important in most of the studies of school effectiveness, but it is notoriously difficult to achieve in the secondary sector. There are various reasons for this: parents may have had bad experiences themselves at secondary school; they may have other commitments, (for example mothers who stay at home with primary aged children are more likely to return to work as the children get older); as the children get older they have a growing sense of independence and are not too keen on their parents presence on "their" territory. In addition, many secondary schools do not only serve their immediate catchment area (as most primaries do) and this exacerbates access difficulties for some parents. Nevertheless the schools in the project tried to involve parents in discussions about improvements to the learning environment.

We are however aware that because not all parents want to, or are able to visit their child's school, it does not mean that they are not interested. We need to find ways to help themin their own homes.

We are also aware that these strategies are neither new nor unique. What may be different is that eight schools, which believe that their institutions can "make a difference" to the lives of their students, are working together in order to do this. The strategies used are based on the available research and implemented in a systematic and coherent manner.

How do we measure progress?

Some progress is easy to measure. We know that raw league tables are not helpful in identifying progress and are not a fair way of comparing schools that have very different intakes. Work is being done on "value added" measures, which take account of where pupils started. But at the moment they are complicated and it is difficult to find appropriate prior-achievement measures. An 11-year-old's reading age may not be a useful predictor of later achievement in maths. As national curriculum assessments come on line, "value-added" measures may become more accessible. Tim Brighouse has suggested that schools should be judged according to their "own previous best" and Michael Barber at Keele university is currently working on a School Improvement Index that would help schools do this over a three-year period. (Even this method has its disadvantages as schools that are already doing very well will find it quite difficult to demonstrate a significant percentage improvement in results).

This "hard" data based on examination results only helps us measure aspect 1 of Hargreaves's four aspects of achievement. It does not help us measure the last and perhaps the most interesting National Education and Training target, the development of self-reliance, flexibility and breadth. Ten years on, David Hargreaves believes that the definition of the four aspects in the ISS report is still helpful, but perhaps there should have been more emphasis on helping schools measure aspects 2-4. He believes that we have a language deficit when it comes to measurement and that we need to develop methods of "capturing and reporting" outcomes other than test scores. It may be that in order to raise the status of these aspects of achievement we have to be clearer about target-setting and measuring progress.

While we are waiting for the researchers to come up with standardised tests to measure practical and spoken skills, personal and social skills, and motivation and self-confidence, schools could seize the opportunity to experiment with their own methods of measuring these aspects.

For example, motivation could be measured by administering a questionnaire to a sample of pupils in one year-group or the whole school, alongside examining data already held, such as the staying on rate, punctuality and attendance and participation in extra-curricular activities.

Confidence could be explored in a similar vein. A "confidence audit" could include questions about the opportunities the school provides for students to participate in public situations such as assemblies and school councils.

How successful are these opportunities? How many students participate? Are there any groups that would benefit by particular support in this area? This sort of information would provide a useful snapshot of the current situation and could also be used on an annual basis to measure progress.

The process of meeting to brainstorm ways of sampling these aspects could highlight their importance and enable staff to produce inventive procedures that suit the needs of their school. Involving pupils in these discussions could also reinforce their status (the pupils' and the aspects') and may well produce exciting and imaginative solutions. Subsequently, pupils could be involved in the self-evaluation component of the procedure, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning.

If we do not find ways to measure progress, we will not know whether we are raising all aspects of achievement.

Kate Myers is the manager of the Schools Make a Difference Project Hammersmith Fulham, an Associate of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre, Institute of Education, University of London.

National Education and Training Targets (NETTs). 1 By 1997, 80 per cent of young people to reach NVQ 2 or equivalent(5 GCSEs at Grade A-C). It is estimated that in 1993, 61 per cent of studentsunder 19 reached this level.

2 By 2000, 50 per cent of young people to reach NVQ 3 or equivalent(2 A-levels at grades A-E). Last year 37 per cent of the workforce up to andincluding 21, reached this level or higher.

3 Training and education to NVQ 3 available to all young people who can benefit.

4 Education and training to develop self-reliance, flexibility and breadth.

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