I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about why we should stop intervening and focus upon improving the quality of teaching.


This is my first ever request post. I loved reading a post by @DHTJohn on the corrosive nature of examination run-in interventions. I wish I had written it. When I complimented him @LeeDonaghy and @ieshasmall asked me to write about why I have all but stopped Year 11 interventions…
First clarify your terms. When I was Headteacher at Lady Lumley’s School we invented the concept of PIRA: Prevention, Intervention and Raising Achievement. The definitions of these three different things are important:

  • Prevention: all the great teaching that we do in class to make sure that all our students stay on track, preventing anyone falling behind;
  • Intervention: direct interventions for those individual students who, despite all our great classroom teaching, have fallen behind due, quite often, to circumstances largely beyond our control;
  • Raising Achievement: our generic programme of preparation for examinations that raises achievement more generally.

It follows that if you get your teaching right you won’t need to intervene very much.
As Alex Ferguson would say, It’s squeaky bum time! My half-term present from my excellent student progress-tracking colleague Mike was the news that our headline 2014 GCSE figures might not be quite as good as last year. Unless you are a Headteacher you’ll never quite feel the full impact of that news: the stiffening tension in the forearms; the waking up at 3 am without knowing why; and for me specifically – and bizarrely – rather than squeaks, it’s always been pins and needles in my backside.
In the run up to the summer examinations too many Headteachers think more is more. And I understand why they think that. I used to think it. I have written at length about what I did when our GCSE results were in decline. It’s a wretched feeling and the instinct is to pile on the Year 11 interventions relentlessly; all that does, however, is make everyone miserable and allow you, as Headteacher, to say to Governors in September, I know the results are mediocre, but look at all the work we put in – we couldn’t have done any more! Extending the rear-metaphor, this is also known as covering our backsides.


As Headteacher you need to listen. After our poor examination results in 2010 @HuntingEnglish vented his frustrations at having worked so hard for so little in a document which was a precursor to his now renowned blog. Alex called it The Conundrum of CK and in it he focused upon a student who should have gained a grade B in English Language but he attained a grade D in the end of it all. It is a seminal document in the history of our school in many ways and is reproduced verbatim below.
[scribd id=207289038 key=key-2h2lyhjmvi2yqumsskj7 mode=scroll]
It takes courage to swim against the tide. In September 2010 I wrote a response to our examination results and Alex’s outpouring. These are the most important lines:

Last year we wore ourselves thin preparing Year 11 for their GCSEs. We must not do the same this year because if we continue to do what we have always done, we will get the same results: our approach this year must be different. Last year we started our interventions too early, such as extra English and Mathematics lessons after school in January and by the time of the examinations in June both staff and students were exhausted by the attritional nature of engagement over the previous six months. We must also ask ourselves the question, Why do some students think, when they have seven hours of English lessons in Years 10 and 11 a fortnight, that ten one hour lessons, one a week leading up to the examinations, held after school when they and their teachers are tired, will suddenly transform them from D grade students to C grade students and make up for their lack of effort in their seven hours of lessons a fortnight over the past 18 months? We have to stop encouraging students to be helpless; it does us no good and, most importantly, it does the students no good in the long-term either. We have to make this change systematically; over the next three years we need to get away from the Year 11 examination run-in frenzy. We have to look at current Year 7s and Year 8s and imagine them being more independent and engaged with learning because they see the relevance of it and can envision their futures. We want to inspire confident learners who will thrive in a changing world.

Those Year 8s I write of are the Year 11s who attained 75% 5 A*-C GCSE grades in 2013…

graph 1

Interventions breed learned helplessness. The paragraph in my piece about one of our G50 mentors, Chris Gadsby, is priceless:

[Chris] commented that all three of his students were looking forward to the extra revision sessions the departments were putting on and were looking forward to being made to attend the sessions by staff.  What these comments confirm is that students need to realise that their ordinary week by week timetabled lessons are the most important thing in preparing for their examinations; extra revision sessions are not the great panacea!

Less is more. I still get pins and needles in my backside and so we will always have a finger upon our Year 11 pulse! The key is, however, that we do not have any compulsory after school sessions; what we do provide for students is well-targeted at a small number of specific individuals. I do not want to add to teachers’ workloads. The programme is led by SLT and no-one outside SLT is expected to do any more than teach great lessons during lesson time.
It’s the day-to-day teaching that matters. If you are still not convinced, here are my reflections on my 2010 lunchtime mathematics mentoring sessions:

In the short term, we have to put the emphasis back on what goes on in the classroom in timetabled lessons. The vast majority of our extraordinary efforts in preparing our students for their examinations must be focused upon the classroom. Instead of me acting as a pseudo-mathematics teacher during lunchtimes for JG et al (during one of our algebraic lunchtimes one of the group I was mentoring last year said, Sir, this is really draining me…), the support from SLT should be directed to JG’s mathematics teacher in the classroom.

Frenetic interventions are wearing teachers and students out: just make the lessons count!

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This post has 12 Comments

  1. Brilliant. This is so counter the “more is more” cant that is increasingly prevalent. Learned helplessness is the perfect phrase for it. You have the bravery and integrity to focus on “what is right”, rather than “what I need to be seen doing”. Something I aspire to.
    Left a lengthy response to Deputy John’s original post about the effect of intereventions in KS2 and KS1. Madness,

  2. Reblogged this on academictrust and commented:
    It’s the final push in the run up to exam season: doing again what we have already done and expecting a different outcome leads me to reblog this post from John Tomsett.
    What if we were to focus more on students’ intrinsic motivation, at this time, rather than ploughing on with tiring and unwanted interventions? What if we were able to hide the distractions, reduce stress and give students back ownership for their grades? Wouldn’t this be intervention enough?
    I’ve recently picked up a Year 11 group for English Intervention , once a week for fifty minutes. They don’t want it, they believe they don’t need it and they are stressed by it. My solution? I’ve stopped doing what I’ve always done in the past and asked them to bring in anything, from any subject that they are struggling with, need to complete, or want to revise. We spend 50 minutes, some in pairs, others forming small groups and most working independently on the task in hand: preparing for their exams. I work in the margins, guiding, questioning and praising their maturity. There’s nothing wrong with building their ego and pandering to them a little; I can’t think of a single teenager who doesn’t want control over their lives!
    Our time together is productive, stress free and collegiate. We are all wanting the same outcome and the students are motivated. Most work on English tasks, from revision books which they cling to like floating debris in the aftermath of a shipwreck. I know that there is pressure all round but it is wrong to assume that they are not feeling it as much as we are. I’ve seen our stresses transferred to young people where we wrongly assume that they just don’t care as much as us and that it is our jobs on the line as much as their futures. What a terrible state for us to get into.
    John’s blog post is a timely reminder to focus on the teaching and not only for Year 11. We’ve had five years with this lot and no amount of blind panic can make an ounce of difference to the results in August.

  3. This is an extremely interesting article. I am looking forward to sharing it with my colleages.
    Pupils often comment that they find the regular school day exhausting, and I often say that if they haven’t then something has gone wrong. I was wondering what your opinions are about the division of labour between teachers time preparing and delivering lessons v’s time providing feedback? I feel this article adds weight to my view that lesson prep and performance in the classroom is the most significant thing a teacher can do. It’s a lot harder to ignore a well planned and delivered lesson than a feedback comment.

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