Who is doing the work?

I visited a lovely school recently. My impression was that it was very similar to mine in many ways:

  • The same sort of intake in terms of ability and social background
  • Sincere and dedicated teachers
  • Similar range of teaching styles

There was one interesting difference. Their exam results were not as good as they could be, while my school’s results are superb.

Naturally, this school assumed it should take on board Ofsted’s usual suggestion, from a report of a few years back, to tackle ‘passive learning’. Let us set aside the problem with following advice which is simply promoting a preferred teaching style (especially as inspectors have now been explicitly told they can no longer use ‘passive learning’ as a criticism), it is still problematic advice from Ofsted.

I had to ask myself why getting compliance from teachers in preferred teaching styles would be the best solution when in my own school we have been getting such good results without taking this option. While we are accountable for results and there has been CPD on different lesson techniques, my school management has let teachers use their professional judgement when choosing how to deliver lessons.

I could see another difference between the two schools that I think must play at least some part in explaining the variation in exam results but a difference Ofsted showed no interest in highlighting. In my school there are unusually strong structures in place to ensure we know if students aren’t making adequate effort and clear, proactive mechanisms in place to do something about it.

  • Students aren’t just told working hard is a good idea
  • We don’t do assemblies on growth mind sets and stick up posters on the virtues of persistence and hope the students will listen to our exhortations.
  • Pastoral staff want to know if there are issues with a student’s effort, even if they are just coasting so they have the big picture and can step in and discourage bad habits. Therefore, subject teachers aren’t left to chase up persistent late or poor work without support.
  • Our students are graded at least twice a term for effort by their teachers and the main purpose of our tracking is to identify students who are not making an effort with their work and ensuring they do something about it. Tracking IS about effort. Achievement barely gets a look in.
  • Pastoral staff have weekly conversations with students in which they are held to account for poor effort and shoddy work. Students may get detentions or lose privileges.
  • If yr12 and 13 students are not showing the maturity to manage their available time they do face consequences.

All this means that our students do tend to work quite hard. There wasn’t such a rigorous system in place when I came to work at the school 15 years ago. I can see the difference it has made. All students now learn the habit of settling down to regular work and have the chance to realise that their efforts pay off. It is funny how negative some management are about putting more responsibility onto the pastoral system for monitoring and taking action over poor student attitudes to learning. It is not at all easy for class teachers to have the same impact and in fact, most teachers have a pastoral role anyway so workloads remain similar. Teachers are just more able to have an impact in their pastoral role as long as there are systems so they are well informed about their tutees. It is worth making clear that the system is not just in place to ensure students are learning to work hard, it is holistic and has students’ well-being at its heart.

Perhaps you think that it is the teachers who should be required to work harder, planning more engaging lessons and that will then make students work harder. I don’t know why some teachers think planning specifically for engagement is better for motivation than planning to get real progress. Self-efficacy is a great motivator and engagement through fun tasks is just another extrinsic motivator. It has a place but fun doesn’t directly lead to students practising the habit of deferred gratification or self-control they need to develop to really make excellent progress. Even wonderful lessons, which bring the subject alive, don’t tackle the problem of how to force yourself to write a four page essay when you’d rather go out with your mates.

I came across this clip (click on the ‘expectations’ clip), made by the very successful Dixons Trinity Academy. It couldn’t be more different from my school. I think there would be horror and consternation if we painted six foot motivational slogans around our school’s Victorian quad! However, I was very struck by one very big similarity between this school and my own, the emphasis on hard work.

The education world searches endlessly for tricks to get even marginal gains in student progress through classroom teaching, heaping ever greater pressure on the teachers in the process. However, to actually hold students to account for their effort can have a much bigger impact but is unfashionable. How can students learn the cost of laziness if in school it has none? I fear we often deprive our children of the chance to build good work habits because of our squeamishness over requiring hard work. I don’t think we do our students any favours.


9 thoughts on “Who is doing the work?

  1. Superb post. You are spot-on here. You also imply the hazards of learned helplessness which I think are real and significant. I have witnessed a steady decline in the willingness of pupils to do things for themselves, the more the intervention and accountability culture has grown.

  2. Absolutely! There is no quick fix – learning and progress is all about the ‘long game’. Good habits promoted by excepting nothing but excellence and then feedback to help them get there. This fits in with my view that good teaching is about being relentless

  3. Hello from California! Thank you for sharing these interesting observations. I think we can all use advice for how to foster a culture that values hard work in our students. However, I don’t understand what you mean by Pastoral staff. Would you please clarify who these people are and how they fit in to the educational structure at your school? I am trying to figure out how we might implement a similar process in our school. Thanks!

    1. Hi Elizabeth! Pastoral just means teachers responsible for the general well being of students in school. I’m not sure how it works in the US but in the UK an ordinary academic subject teacher at secondary level (age 11-16) will also have a form of approx 30 students. They register these students each day and are the first person parents or someone else in the school will approach if there is any concern about the child. Other teachers will have more senior pastoral positions and deal with bigger issues such as very bad behaviour or truancy. Hope that makes some sense.

  4. I’m currently in the process of refocussing my school towards encouraging effort rather than simply grades (since one often comes with the other). Could you tell me what kind of effort assessment you do each half term? In what form do they come?
    Many thanks

    1. Hi Shelley. About seven times a year we ask staff to give two separate effort grades for students on a scale of 1 to 6. A three is ‘good’ effort and a four is ‘coasting’. One effort grade is for in class and the other is for homework. In my school the significant written work is done for homework and so that grade is really for written work. No one thinks the teachers judgement is an accurate science but the grades are used as a guide by pastoral staff. They follow up any causes for concern and may follow up poor effort with extra monitoring or sanctions if there are clear regular issues.
      I hope that helps!

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