Secrets of the upward spiral
The percentage of pupils with five GCSE grades A to C is the single most important indicator of performance, schools suggest. And providing extra help for borderline Year 11 pupils thought capable of reaching this standard is the most common strategy for improvement.
That is the impression gained from the 35 schools which responded to a recent request in The TES for examples of successful strategies for "substantially improving pupil perfomance in a wide variety of ways including exam results".
The question was open-ended and those responding self-selecting, so not too much should be read into these replies. But it was interesting that not a single primary school replied.
This may suggest that raising pupil performance is principally a secondary concern. That could change rapidly when the proposed league tables for the end of key stage 2 appear, especially if they start to affect parental choices.
Most replies referred only to raw examination results, and almost without exception, to the headline figure for five or more A to C grades. But a substantial minority pointed also to the measures of wider attainment that also feature in the league tables (percentages obtaining any A to C or A to G grades). And some schools clearly have performance indicators of their own to reflect school aims of raising attainments for all. One school cited the percentage entered for 10 GCSEs, while another had calculated that "on average, every pupil in every subject is achieving two grades higher than five years ago". One referred to reduction of X and U grades.
Doubling or trebling the percentage obtaining 5 A to Cs, it seems, is not uncommon among schools which take the raising of pupil performance seriously, particularly where they start from a low base.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the law of diminishing returns applies or whether success breeds success. Only two replies referred to the National Education and Training Targets, but many are concerned about the low scores of boys.
Only about one in five replies reveal any systematic attempt to answer the question, "are these results as good as should be expected for our pupils?" Three had apparently undertaken complex statistical analyses of prior attainments and background factors to provide state-of-the-art predicted grades pupil-by-pupil and department-by-department.
Others offered broader comparisons of their school's GCSE results with the ability of its intake. One school was able to say it was 23rd on the county's list according to the ability scores of its pupils on transfer, whereas its GCSE results are consistently in the top four.
Various other improvement indicators were suggested or implied by the replies. Better discipline was judged in one school by figures showing the reduced numbers of pupils referred for poor behaviour.
The subjective impression in another of "a substantial improvement in pupil attitudes to school life" was underlined by a 24 per cent reduction in after-school detentions. One school used as an "indicator of quality" the numbers of pupils who said in response to a survey that school was a waste of time.
Strategies used to raise pupils' morale and expectations also yielded measures of improved motivation based on such things as the numbers of pupils seeking merit awards or participating in after-hours sessions.
A few schools also clearly regard attendance figures as important management indicators. One claimed to have reduced its unauthorised absence rate from 20 per cent to 0.8 per cent in the space of four years.
Meanwhile it raised the percentage obtaining five or more grade Cs and above from 8 per cent to 40 per cent and doubled the numbers of parents expressing a preference for the school.
Another with an intake limit of 180 had raised its first choices from 80 to 213 in four years. Only a handful of replies referred to pupils staying on in education beyond 16 as a performance measure.
The strategies for raising pupil attainment vary widely, but increasing both expectations and support underlie most of them.
For many, the establishment of a clear achievement ethos was crucial. This was refered to in various ways, reflecting a wide range of management and leadership styles. One school reported the school ethos was "deliberately changed from caring to challenging" though others maintained that "the pupil as a person remains central; support and mentoring strategies enhance rather than conflict with care of the pupil".
One head launched attempts to raise staff expectations "with a vision for the school and a statement clearly outlining my own position". In other schools the approach seemed more corporate.
Raising achievement featured in several schools' aims. One girls' school, deprived of the ablest 25 per cent by selective schools, set out to "develop a positive self-image in every student" by asking them to "challenge yourself to achieve a personal best, recognising the second-rate and rejecting it".
High staff morale is vital according to some responses. Some mention the importance of appraisal and staff development and several schools find ways of enabling teachers to share their successes. Clearer expectations are being set for marking, spelling and homework. Performance targets are being set for staff as well as pupils either in whole-school objectives( "We aim to achieve 50 per cent A to C grades in three years") or through more precise departmental or pupil targets.
In a few schools, verbal reasoning and other tests scores are used to indicate to staff what GCSE grades pupils are expected to achieve in their subject. Senior managers were attached to departments in one school to monitor the quality, pace and challenge of learning, and departmental workshops were organised to examine the standard of pupils' written work. In another the head had termly meetings with heads of department to discuss student grades and potential.
As already noted, targeting likely underachievers for extra attention was the most popular single strategy. Pupils on the borderline between a C and D were the usual target group, though some schools are keen to extend the most and least able as well. The involvement of the senior management team in counselling or mentoring such pupils is common. It is not clear whether this is a reflection of its high priority or the failure of senior management to involve other staff in performance-raising initiatives. Some schools involve outside "mentors" from industry or commerce to provide role models.
Extra support is also being provided in the form of homework clubs, lunchtime and holiday sessions and coursework clinics. Schools are opening up their libraries, resources and computer rooms after school to enable pupils to improve their work and presentation. "The emphasis has shifted from punishment for lack of GCSE coursework to catch-up sessions which are compulsory but relaxed and then to improvement sessions which are voluntary," wrote one deputy head.
Several schools mention systematic help with basic skills work lower down the school. One improved the average reading ages of Year 7 pupils who were two years or more behind their actual ages by 16 months in 8 months.
Regular and more honest feedback to pupils and parents - with termly or even half-termly progress grades in some schools - and help with action planning and study skills are often mentioned. Several schools issue GCSE personal organisers. One school gave 30 underachievers their own Pounds 200 pocketbook computers.
Pupil expectations and morale are being lifted with better careers advice, Bills of Rights, greater involvement in decision-making, commendations and merit awards for good behaviour, attendance, effort and achievement. Slips, stickers, cards and letters home, displays of work and achievement or "congratulations" noticeboards, sometimes with photographs of successful pupils, are all being used in efforts to motivate as are more personal approaches: "Staff enter pupils' names in the commendation box and the headteacher offers private congratulations to the pupil concerned."
Horizons are broadened with visits to and from further and higher education, artists in residence, residential experiences and school industry links.
Parents are seen as people who need to be kept informed and supported if they are in turn to support their child. "Robust" reports anddetailed information on what was expected of their child and what they could do to help is sent home or presented at special GCSE evenings. "This ensures that the pupil is aware that we are all working together to achieve the desired result," a deputy head wrote. All this seems to be changing attitudes throughout the school. One head reports a great reduction in the "Boffin syndrome" - derision of those doing well.
A number of case studies of schools successfully raising pupil achievement will be included in the next School Management Update in January. If you have found ways of improving pupil performance of all kinds, write to Bob Doe, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.