Pupil tracking is great as a warning bell

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Electronic pupil tracking is a great invention. Thanks to electronic tracking, meetings between the class teacher and the headteacher to discuss classes, share background information on pupils with special needs and agree predicted attainment by the end of session provide an overview of where pupils are coming from and where they may end up in terms of attainment in national tests.

Of course, there is a lot of blood, sweat and tears in between times.

Some schools ask teachers to input the data as pupils pass tests but I am not so trusting. Teachers are hard-pressed and some do not remember to pass the results to me for entry into the database. I fear that the trend in attainment at Dyce Primary would take a dramatic turn downwards if teachers were required to keep electronic records up to date, in addition to their existing workload.

I prefer to input the data myself because it means that I can monitor progress in attainment on a regular basis as results come in. It also means that I increasingly fret over results as the months go by, especially at the turn of the year and the approach to mid-June when results are extracted centrally.

Depute headteachers are delegated from time to time to make subtle and sometimes unwelcome enquiries about the pace of learning of groups and individuals.

I remember one year working out predicted attainment from class print-outs on the eve of a conference on How Good Is Our School? 2002. I was not a happy bunny the next day as we were exhorted to ensure continuing school improvement, while the dire predictions for our P4 maths attainment were uppermost in my mind.

On my return to school, I negotiated increased teaching time for maths in P1-P4 for the rest of the session. This was viewed by some as a drastic move, but it was a pragmatic and not unsuccessful solution.

What is pupil tracking for if not to provide advance warning and allow time for proactivity in avoiding disaster?

Some things seem to leap off of a spreadsheet, such as the attainment results of pupils in special educational needs classes, pupils with specific learning difficulties, pupils with English as an additional language and able pupils. Their attainment is easily explained.

What I am particularly interested in is the way in which cohorts of low and high attaining pupils come in waves. These pupils can be seen in occasional year groups from nursery right through primary school and teachers at Dyce Academy can still be talking about them when they are in S3 and beyond.

In the case of a low attaining cohort, such reports from secondary teachers can be comforting, in a perverse sort of way. Why is it that some year groups defy the best efforts of all their teachers and of innovative teaching approaches, born from sheer desperation, so that it is nothing short of miraculous if they attain level C by the end of P7? I have had excellent teachers tearing their hair out about what to try next, feeling like abject failures at their lack of success and eventually admitting to being relieved when the children move on and become someone else's nightmare.

Group social dynamics and children's interaction with each other can have an effect on behaviour and a knock-on effect on learning, to some extent.

However, when 10-year-olds can't tell you the day that comes after Wednesday, it's difficult to put that kind of detachment from the real world down to misbehaviour.

I recently heard Lord Winston, professor of fertility studies, say in his television series on child development that children inherit their intelligence from their mothers. This is not entirely new thinking, given the research findings of the early 1990s which linked attainment to parents' qualifications, but it made me think about the cohort issue.

It would be interesting to research into the intelligence of the mothers of low and high attaining pupils to see if the theory holds up. In order to prove the genetic factor it would be necessary to wait until the girls were mothers themselves and then check the intelligence of their offspring.

Would it go any way to explaining why these cohorts come in waves? Clearly this is a longitudinal study for someone other than myself, whose task is to support teachers in finding ways to help children fulfil their potential, whatever that might be.

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary, Aberdeen

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