Are the kids all right?

27th July 2018 at 00:00
In an age of increasing accountability, it can be easy to forget that the true judges of a school’s excellence are the children who attend it every day. With that in mind, we asked primary and secondary students across the UK for their views on the elements that create a great learning environment. Kate Parker reveals the results – and questions if schools are still able to deliver this vision of education as budgets get ever-tighter

Young people do not care about your teaching. Or, rather, it is not the thing they care about most. We asked thousands of five- to 16-year-olds what makes a great school, and their replies did not contain anything about grades or fantastic explanations or a finely tuned knowledge-rich curriculum. They did not utter a word about performance tables, Progress 8 or scaled scores. The primary pupils’ top answer about what makes a school great was “kind teachers who listen, care and love us”, while at secondary, teens opted for a “range of extracurricular activities” (incidentally, this was number two on the primary list).

And that’s great, because schools try to provide exactly those elements. Yet, if reports into the impact of school funding shortfalls are to be believed, schools are increasingly struggling to deliver extracurricular activities, and teachers are so stressed and overworked that finding time to “listen, care and love us” is increasingly difficult.

So, are schools now being blocked from delivering the very things that, in students’ eyes, make them truly exceptional places?

Every school wants to be exceptional, though what exceptional looks like differs depending on who you talk to. This is one of the reasons Ofsted’s “outstanding” badge attracts so much criticism and why many welcomed the recent rumour that the rating could be scrapped. The inspectorate has since made clear that the rumour had no foundation, but it did get us thinking: what does make a school outstanding?

Amid all the fevered debate, we recognised a key voice was missing: that of the students. So, we decided to ask them. We recruited 47 schools from across the UK (primary, secondary, alternative provision, independent, state and special schools) and their staff set about quizzing their pupils on what they thought made a great school.

The resulting top 10 for each phase makes for interesting reading.

'Kind' teachers

There is more crossover between the lists than you might expect. While you may think teens and young children want different things, roughly half of the choices appear on both lists, allowing for some differences in terminology (for example, matching “great pastoral care and extra support” and “kind teachers who listen, care and love us”).

Meanwhile, the qualities named by pupils relating directly to what happens in lessons are of a similar proportion: in primary, three directly relate to what happens in lessons (“engaging reward systems”; “vibrant learning environment”; “creative, fun and exciting lessons”) while at secondary, four options directly relate to lessons (“enjoyable, personal and practical lessons”; “great and supportive teachers”; “range of subjects”; “high aspirations and encouragement to get the best results”).

And what both lists focus on are the elements of schools that are not academic or lesson based. It is the extras schools often provide that seem to really swing it for the students: kind teachers, clubs and extracurricular activities, supportive environments, great facilities, excellent pastoral systems, happiness and healthiness.

A primary pupil in the Lake District sums up the general consensus: “Our school is great because the teachers are not just doing it for the pay. It’s a bit like a family that is always there for you, they make a fuss of you on your birthdays, when you arrive at the school and when you are leaving. They support you no matter what you are going through, even if it’s happening in your house.”

Emma Pritchard, headteacher at Hollymount Primary School in Worcester, says the lists should come as no surprise.

“Often teachers are the people who provide that stability in pupils’ lives,” she explains. “They know that teacher or that teaching assistant is going to be there for them, and that the routine in schools is generally going to stay the same for them. It’s important we not only spend time teaching but nurturing them and listening to them, and offering that pastoral care.”

This is not to say that students dismiss the academic side: “great teachers and personalised lessons” are on the secondary list, alongside “a broad range of subjects”; while on the primary list, they want “fun and exciting lessons”. However, these choices go slightly against the grain of what the government currently believes makes for good learning: personalised lessons are not in vogue, with mass teaching of the same content, prescribed from the top down, being favoured. Meanwhile, a broad range of subjects, some argue, has been discouraged with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate.

This move away from personalised learning is supported by some teachers. Michael Nott, associate assistant principal (English) at Greenwood Academy in Birmingham, says that active involvement in lessons doesn’t always correlate with good learning.

He remembers a lesson he observed on the Irish potato famine, in which pupils had to find potatoes that had been hidden around the room. “The kids learned nothing about the history or effect of the potato famine in that lesson, they learned how to find potatoes.

“Those kids will remember that in 20 years’ time, but they won’t remember anything they’ve learned from it, they’re just remembering the activity,” he says.

“A really engaging lesson with a teacher who is full of subject knowledge and who is really bringing to life their subject – that’s enjoyable. And that’s the important thing – what is being learned in this lesson – not what the hook or the activity is.”

Tim Oates, a former government adviser on the national curriculum, also says that fun and personalised lessons are not necessarily beneficial for pupils. In a recent blog published on the Council of British International Schools’ website, he says that the push for “personalised learning” has led to greater pressure on teachers, overburdening them with the unnecessary workload that accompanies these sorts of lessons, such as differentiated lesson plans, and managing the progress of children who are all learning at different paces.

The personal touch

However, many teachers do seem to support a more personalised approach.

“If students’ individual needs aren’t met, they are going to be bored and they will fall behind,” says Jo Spencer, interim principal at Isaac Newton Academy in London. “You need to make sure you’re closing the gap by producing resources and having teaching that really pushes all students equally. It’s about the children leading the learning, and being able to be really actively involved in tasks, rather than being rote-led, with the teacher at the front at the classroom.”

Meanwhile, Gwyn ap Harri, chief executive of the XP School Trust in Doncaster, says personalised learning does not always have to mean what people often think it means: individualised lessons. “Personalised learning isn’t delivered through a bespoke worksheet,” he says. “It’s as much about asking a student ‘what difference do you want make?’ Learning is not just personal to them, it’s much broader and deeper here. We’re asking ‘what can you personally contribute to your peers, your family, your community and, yes, the world’.”

Whatever your view, it seems that, for the children, these academic issues are secondary to much else that happens in schools (you don’t come across a lesson-based choice until option 4 on the primary list and option 5 on the secondary list).

The question is, can schools still deliver the things that pupils do prioritise, given the restrictions they face?

Fourth on the secondary list is “great facilities”. A Royal Institute of British Architects report from 2016 made it clear that many of the nation’s schools are in a state of disrepair (bit.ly/betterpremises).

Things do not seem to have improved. In April this year, 80 headteachers in West Yorkshire sent a letter to chancellor Philip Hammond and education secretary Damian Hinds raising concerns about “crumbling buildings” (bit.ly/crumblingbuildings). The letter said: “The negative effects of this are myriad: staff reductions, larger class sizes and crumbling buildings just for a start...ultimately a deterioration in the quality of education and therefore outcomes for our children.”

Two weeks after the letter was sent, Andy Simpson, Oasis Community Learning’s national director of property and estates, warned that schools would have to close unless the government pumped funding into the “ticking time bomb” of crumbling buildings. (bit.ly/schoolswillclose).

Money to provide the requested “good outside environment to play and learn in”, on the primary list, is also in short supply.

And what about the choice at the top of the secondary list, and second on the primary list: extracurricular activities? They, too, are becoming increasingly difficult to facilitate, says Kate Jordan, acting headteacher at Cottingham High School in East Riding.

“The last thing you want to go are those exciting opportunities for children. Some children don’t get those opportunities at home, they rely on school for that. Budget constraints bring about time constraints, and it has got more difficult to offer those opportunities,” she says.

“Even small things, such as asking the finance team to book a minibus to transport children to tournaments, university days and residential trips, take a lot of time, especially when staff are already really busy,” she adds.

Enriching opportunities

To keep these enriching opportunities running takes endless commitment from school staff, says the chief executive of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, Peter Westgarth. Although it’s obvious that it has become harder to provide extracurricular activities, teachers and schools refuse to give up, he says. “In our experience, it’s harder but extracurricular activities aren’t completely squeezed out yet. What’s amazing is, despite all of the external pressures, teachers still volunteer to give their own time to make these things happen.

“Very often the school finds the resources to make sure activities continue and, without the voluntary commitment from the teachers, these resources would be a lot less.”

Spencer agrees it is teacher goodwill that is keeping these clubs running. “Teachers are just absolutely great, and are in it for the right reasons, and do it for the good of the kids. I’ve got so much admiration that they go above and beyond every day. They will stay late at night and they will come in on the weekends, but they want to support the kids.

“Staff give very generously of their time, and they know that to have those extracurricular activities is absolutely vital to make rounded young people. To focus purely on academic is not sufficient – you need everything else,” she says.

Gary Moore, headteacher of Regent High in Camden, has set up clubs where pupils can play table tennis or cards. His pupils also have the opportunity to attend a film or boxing club, or be a member of curriculum-based clubs for art, music and drama. And all of these clubs take part at lunchtimes.

“It is more cost-effective to offer them at lunchtime,” says Moore. “But I also try to use the expertise in the school: my caretaker is a semi-pro boxer, so he takes the boxing club. Our sports hall is a joint sports-use facility, so the employees are actually employees of the school, and I do get a bit of extra money coming in from that.”

There are similar adaptations at play on the pastoral side. Funding issues do not just curtail the time teachers have for this side of their role – with teachers lamenting that pastoral roles are being squeezed out – they also impact the ability of social services and other government agencies to respond to issues that teachers report (see bit.ly/pastoralneedscare).

“We are so busy in schools now that we are at risk of missing things we should not miss, and we have to sacrifice our evenings or weekends to catch up on jobs we have not done because we have prioritised the pastoral part of our role,” says one primary senior leader, who wishes to remain anonymous.

“And when you report things and nothing happens, then you end up trying to fix it yourself with no training or resource. We are fulfilling our duty despite the system, when the system should really be doing all that it can to make this part of the job easier.”

Do results matter? Of course they do. Should every child go to a school that helps them make progress, that gets them the results they need and sends them on their way into adulthood with the knowledge they require to thrive? Of course they should.

But our survey suggests that is just one element of what makes a school outstanding. Pupils want to be protected, supported and they want their horizons broadened.

They want their schools to not only help them achieve what they need academically but also follow their hearts in clubs and activities, protect them when they are vulnerable, and for that school to be a fun, welcoming and engaging place to spend their days.

There is not much there that a teacher would disagree with. But there is much that is getting ever harder to deliver.

Kate Parker is online and social writer for Tes. She tweets @kateeparker

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