All teachers want to work to close the achievement gap between their students. If they didn’t, they would be in the wrong job. But even though we aim for high achievement for all our pupils, many of us know that our schools fall short.
The clearest evidence of that is in the annual GCSE results reporting, which boasts about the 80 per cent who do well, but often doesn’t explain what happens to the other 20 per cent – or why. When I launched the charity Achievement for All in 2011, only 36 per cent of pupils claiming free school meals and 22 per cent of those identified as SEND achieved five or more GCSEs (grade A*-C), compared to over 60 per cent of all other pupils.
Nearly five years on, I have seen just how the teaching profession can work to change those statistics. We are now working in around 4,000 primary and secondary schools and academies across the UK to support them as they turn those figures around. Here are our top five priorities for school progress when it comes to closing the achievement gap.
A focus on wellbeing ensures that staff are working at their best and that their skills are being utilised. Teachers want and need to keep learning; I’ve been in teaching for 35 years and still learn something new every day. But this has become a profession that sees the newly qualified start out believing that they should know everything.
Unlike others graduates (doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, journalists), who shadow or assist colleagues and clamour to see the best at work so that they can learn from them, teachers often land in front of a class feeling like they should understand every pupil – their needs, challenges, or the implications of being, say, a looked-after child or a young carer – and that they’re to blame if they don’t progress. They feel this even though they may have barely touched on these issues during training.
It’s something that has come out of, and fed, a culture of fear and stress in teaching. We want teachers to recognise that initial teacher training is what it says on the tin; to see it open a door to a profession that allows its members to learn something every day.
This culture of collaboration gives teachers the confidence to speak up if they need support, to search for new ways to reach each child, and to try something new if their first ideas don’t work.
Better engagement with parents and carers
Families can help us understand their children – and embracing this idea can help transform a school’s results. Once teachers have worked to establish a relationship, they find that they can enlist family support in helping children reach them.
Any school can start to think about how it can give more time, listen harder and learn more from the parents and carers. Then teachers can discover new ways to engage children who might be struggling – by finding out what gets them excited about learning, and what makes their day good and bad.
We’ve seen lots of examples. One teacher, having discovered a pupil’s love of gardening, recruited the caretaker to create a small plot for the pupil to care for when he comes to school in the morning. The gardening helped the child learn and gave him confidence and a sense of his value to the school community. We’ve also seen a disengaged teenager brought back to lessons via his love of computers and gaming, which was embraced to enlist him in a school IT programme. The smallest details can give schools a clue to what is going wrong for a child, and inspire new ideas to help put it right.
We know that the pupils who struggle are often given special help by a teaching assistant, or are perhaps moved into a SEND group. We understand that this can help a pupil’s progress, but we also see that teachers subsequently lose touch with these pupils.
What happens in out-of-class interventions doesn’t always link back to what’s going on when they join the bigger group. Teachers will see reports from the Sendco or get feedback from the teaching assistant, but aspirations for the pupil can be diminished in the process. If something is tried and fails, especially if it has worked for a student with a similar need, then it is too easy to assume that nothing else will work.
Teachers should stop seeing the learning needs of pupils who are underachieving as the responsibility of the Sendco or the teaching assistant, and instead see them as something that challenges their own teaching and learning. It instils a desire to seek out more effective approaches in pedagogical practice, working in partnership with their team. As a result, teachers and teaching assistants work more closely, sharing ideas before and after interventions, and together they make a bigger difference to the children in their care.
Early and immediate interventions
Children’s difficulties cannot be an excuse for why they are not achieving. It’s what I like to call the “Wizard of Oz syndrome”, or the “because, because, because” excuse.
Teachers – often subconsciously – think that the reason a child is not progressing is because of their special education needs. They think that the solution is finding out what the problem is. While assessments are done and a diagnosis is sought – which can be incredibly valuable in the longer term – action needs to be taken. A term, even half a term, is too long for a child not to be understood, valued and included.
Instead, if teachers meet with and listen to parents and carers about what helps a child at home – and then discuss with their colleagues what might work at school straight away – there is usually a more immediate way to effectively reach the child and get around the problem, instead of accepting that progress will be stalled until a diagnosis is made.
Greater equality and more true inclusion
This is last but definitely not least – it’s something that supports all the priorities above. Every child needs to be equal to their peers and fully included in the class group. They need to know that they are understood by teachers and by all of their classmates before they can learn effectively.
Once we recognise this, we can create situations in and outside of the classroom where friendships can be fostered and understanding can grow. For example: having peer mentors to greet pupils who struggle to get into class; supervised lunchtime clubs where social skills are practised and friendships can flourish; sessions with outside experts to promote understanding; or a class policy of pairing up or grouping children in class to ensure that no one feels unwanted or left out. None of these ideas are magic bullets, but together they can help to create a powerful, positive effect on learning – and test results – when children get back into class.
Professor Sonia Blandford is the founder and CEO of Achievement for All and an educational author @SoniaAFA3AS