Pupils’ views of what they regard as great teaching change radically during the course of their school careers, according to a new large-scale study.
The qualities that they say are expected and needed from their teachers shifts from warmth and humour in the primary years to exam expertise and organisational ability later on, a survey of 11,902 pupils by The Girls’ Day School Trust has found.
The research by the chain of 26 girls’ schools revealed that during primary school and the early years of key stage 3, its pupils tended to value a teacher’s personal qualities, such as patience, willingness to listen and kindness.
“They respond well to teachers who challenge them and who communicate well,” an analysis of the preliminary findings said. “Creativity is highly prized.”
‘A means to an end’
As pupils hit Year 9 and exams rear into view, though, the trust found that what pupils value in teachers gradually narrows, becoming much more “a means to an end”.
Responses that referred to the importance of students being given “independence”, “freedom” or “challenge” by their teachers fell to their lowest levels in Years 10 and 11. Key stage 4 students were nearly a third less likely to identify these as key attributes of a great teacher than those in key stages 3 or 5.
Year 10 and 11 students were also five times more likely to refer to qualities such as “gives good notes” and “understands the pressures we are under”.
They also valued staff who make close reference to the syllabus, and provide quick feedback and marking.
The analysis refers to these as “toolbox” qualities. This also includes allowing questions, and the ability to control a class and to structure lessons well.
The proportion of students who consider a teacher being “well organised” to be more important than a teacher being “patient and sensitive” increased from 49 per cent in key stage 3 to 56 per cent in key stage 4. After GCSE, the survey revealed, pupils entering the sixth form tended to put a renewed value on teachers who knew their subject well and could inspire them, the analysis said.
Kevin Stannard, head of innovation and learning at GDST, explained that the change in pupils’ expectations of their teachers took place gradually during secondary school.
“Students in key stage 3 tend to carry with them, from the later primary years, an appreciation of teachers who challenge them and give them scope to make choices and be independent,” he said.
“This happens again in the sixth form, with an additional focus on teaching that enthuses and inspires. But there appears to be a change of focus in Years 10 and 11.”
He said the shift was already noticeable by the end of key stage 3: “You get the sense by Year 9 that pupils have a more instrumentalist approach to what they want from teaching.
“They are adapting their definition. Pupils develop a rational response to the system and they really appreciate the teachers who get the pressure they are under, who give them the resources they need.”
The trust’s analysis concludes: “The stand-out difference is represented by the influence of the battery of external exams at age 16.”
This, the trust said, was “a distracting factor” that forced students into a state of “learned helplessness”.
‘Indicative of stress’
Jonathan Taylor, headteacher of Wymondham College, a state boarding secondary school in Norfolk, said the evolution of pupils’ expectations over their school careers was a pattern he recognised.
“In the younger year groups they look for a nurturing approach, but in the later years, exam-based teaching is more desirable,” he said. “It is indicative of the stress within the system, particularly around GCSE.”
But, Mr Taylor added, whatever the pupils of any age said that they wanted from school staff, they actually responded best to inspirational teachers.
Caroline Jordan, headteacher of Headington School in Oxford and this year’s president of the Girls’ Schools Association, said she thought the findings were “symptomatic” of children being overly tested, but she agreed with Mr Taylor about the importance of providing inspiration to pupils.
Ms Jordan said: “Inspiring teachers during Years 10 and 11 really do make the difference and can encourage their pupils to take their subject beyond GCSE.”
What attributes make a great teacher?
The online survey was open to students of the 26 GDST girls’ schools and academies over a two-week period early in the summer term 2016.
A total of 11,902 students responded, from all school year groups. They were asked: “What attributes make a great teacher?”
The results reveal how pupils’ views of what makes a good teacher change over time and can be divided into several phases:
In primary school, pupils said they valued teachers’ personal qualities, such as being calm, helpful, kind and funny. A great teacher “must be a bit humorous”, “always helps you when you need it” and “is kind, good and nice, and looks after us”.
In the early years of secondary, pupils valued these personal qualities but were more specific, and respond to teachers who challenge them and communicate well. A great teacher “makes complicated topics easy”, “inspires you to do your best” and “gives a reason for telling people off”.
During the GCSE years, pupils become more utilitarian in their approach, wanting teachers who can get them through their exams. A great teacher “teaches with close reference to the syllabus” and “provides good notes and resources”.
In the sixth form, pupils were looking for a bit more passion. A great teacher “knows the subject really well”, “enjoys sharing their subject” and “inspires me”.