I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how we can make 39,528 individual interventions to help vulnerable students make better progress.
Why is the number 4,392 relevant to our vulnerable students? (By vulnerable students we mean those students who are low attainers on entry, have a Special Educational Need or Disability, or are disadvantaged, including those who are in care.) The answer is that in a bog standard comprehensive school like ours, which has five one hour lessons a day, five days a week for 37.6 weeks a year (that is 39 weeks a year minus training days and bank holidays, except for in Year 11 when it is 32.6 weeks because the lessons stop five weeks before the end of the summer term), and where the students attend for an average of 96% of the time, 4,392 is the number of lessons a single vulnerable student attends, on average, from the day s/he begins Year 7 until s/he attends the final lesson in Year 11.
Why our vulnerable students especially? Well, our vulnerable students, especially our low attainers on entry, make the least progress of all our different specific cohorts of students. Changing that situation, so that our vulnerable students, especially our low attainers on entry, make similar progress to all the other students, is proving a struggle. For the last six months we have been thinking as hard as we have ever done, in the near fifteen years I have been a head teacher, about a single school improvement challenge. At one point we asked a range of our vulnerable students what it was that their teachers did which helped them learn most effectively. They said ‘we learn most when teachers:
- explain exactly what we have to do for homework;
- help us write down our homework in our planners;
- help us understand the meaning of difficult words;
- seat us where we can see the board easily;
- use coloured paper for handouts to help us read the words more easily;
- ask us questions to help us understand;
- help us when they are walking round the room;
- are kind to us when we get answers wrong;
- have a little fun sometimes.’
How can we meet our vulnerable students’ progress challenge? Well, there is no easy answer. We have 112 teachers at Huntington. The majority of our teaching is to mixed attainment classes (click here to access Professor Becky Francis’ Best practice in grouping students project and find out why we largely favour mixed attainment teaching). Now, if all 112 of our teachers were so deliberate in their teaching that, in every one of the 4,392 lessons a vulnerable Huntington student experiences in his or her main school career, the teachers consciously practised those nine simple actions that help our vulnerable students learn, what might the impact be upon our vulnerable students’ progress?
Implementation eats intervention for breakfast. To create a system where all 112 teachers practise these nine simple actions in every lesson, every day is a huge challenge. Just think, for instance, of the practical steps we would have to take to ensure that coloured paper is easily available – and I mean no-hassle-whatsoever-for-me-to-do-that available – for a teacher to make individual copies for the two students in his or her class who feel that handouts on orange paper stop the words moving around the page quite so much (even though the evidence regarding the efficacy of coloured paper on alleviating the symptoms of dyslexia is wafer thin). Just think about it for a moment and you’ll begin to understand that implementing such a simple-sounding intervention is actually pretty complex. But, with some doggedness, we have to try because the nine simple actions practised in 4,392 lessons (that’s 39,528 separate interventions) by every one of our 112 teachers just might help our vulnerable students make the same progress as their less vulnerable peers.