Dear Mr. Gove, Please don’t treat my students the same.

Dear Mr. Gove,

As a teacher I am a strong supporter of your recent statement that no child should leave their schooling illiterate and innumerate. However, as a teacher I can not bring myself to support your belief that every child must (and can) achieve a C or above in maths and English by the time they leave education.

I need to start this by saying that I am not lazy; I am not an “enemy of promise”;’ I am not scared of hard work. In reality I am a dedicated teacher who wants nothing but the best for those who spend time in my care and in my classroom. But I do disagree with your idea about the C grade in the core subjects.

In my career I have worked with higher, middle and lower ability GCSE students and I have held their hand, motivated them and nagged at them through their GCSE experience. I would like to give you an idea about the type of students I have seen through their GCSE English:

  • Children in Care
  • Children going through divorce
  • Children struggling with their sexuality
  • Children being bullied
  • Pregnant children
  • Those with mild, moderate and severe educational needs
  • Exceptionally bright children
  • Children struggling against religious pressures
  • Children struggling against family pressures
  • Children with eating disorders

I have deliberately used “children” as I think it’s important to remember that they are not adults yet and as a result of that are not always terribly mature. And as children experiencing a whole range of pressures and problems, some of which an adult could not handle adequately, is it right to expect they are all able to achieve the same minimum standard?

During my teaching experience I have seen changes to education policy which I both agree and disagree with, but the most significant, and most dangerous, change has been the increase of pressure on students to achieve a C or above in maths and English. Certainly, I agree that there should be a suitable amount of pressure on students when it comes to their GCSEs: they are ultimately responsible for what happens when writing a Controlled Assessment or when sat in the exam hall. But are we putting too much pressure on students to achieve the impossible because we, or government, are trying to treat them all the same?

Treating people the same is such a simplistic notion for how a society should function. Should I expect you to run as fast as Usain Bolt? I’m assuming you both had to attend PE lessons and sports days at school; that both of you have access to trainers and somewhere to run. So why are you not achieving gold medals at international running competitions? It’s because you have a different passion and spend your time working on that. It’s because Bolt has a natural talent for running and your natural talent lies elsewhere. It’s because his body is built differently to your body making him able to produce different results from it. So why do you expect a child who achieved level 5 at KS2 and has CAT scores of 130 or higher to achieve the same as someone who achieved level 2 at KS2 and has CATs of 90 or lower to both be able to achieve C or higher? Their brains are built differently to each other; they have different natural talents. And what if their natural talents lie elsewhere? Perhaps in languages, music, art or drama? They will naturally want to spend their time on these pursuits and for a rich and diverse Britain shouldn’t we be encouraging that? Obviously, I tell students that it’s easy to spend time on what you love but more important to spend time on that which you struggle with. But I don’t want to turn them away from their passion and, worse still, stop them achieving incredible successes in an area which isn’t a core subject.

It has always been my understanding that target grades are a minimum expectation for a student, which is why I’ve always told my classes that we’re aiming for “target grade or higher”. But what if someone has a target grade of an E? This target indicates that an E grade is the most likely outcome of this student based on their ability in the subject. This target indicates acceptable progress for this student. And this is the same for every target grade for every student, if set correctly. So why is it acceptable for students with C grade or higher targets to achieve their target grade but those of D grade or lower have to over achieve? It doesn’t make sense to me. To go back to my earlier metaphor, you will have to work harder than Usain Bolt to achieve the same results as him because it’s not an area where you naturally excel. This is the same for students at school. Every year we are demanding that students who don’t have a natural aptitude in our subject to achieve the same as those who do. And if they fail, we force them to take it again, and again, and again… This must feel like torture for them.

I have worked with students who have over achieved in their GCSEs:

  • The A grade target who achieved an A*
  • The B grade target who achieved an A (and one who got an A*)
  • The C grade target who achieved a B
  • The D grade target who achieved a C
  • The E grade target who achieved a D

Sadly, the final classification of student is not celebrated in the same way as the other 4 examples of over achievers. Sadly, the E grade student who achieves a D overall feels like they failed as the magical C grade still wasn’t achieved. And worse still, the school doesn’t rejoice in the excellent job we did for this student in allowing them to strive for excellence and achieve it instead we mourn the loss of a percentage point for the league table.

I recognise that we need a way to mark exams and controlled assessments, currently that’s letters and soon it will be numbers but it doesn’t show the truth of the education a child has achieved during their GCSE years. In my ideal education system I would love to see a way of recognising students for their achievements, no matter what they are. I would love to see my E grade students who overachieve and get a D being recognised for the hard work and sheer determination they put into their final result. Sadly, this is not currently the case as they, their parents, their school, their future employers and their government still see it as evidence of them not being good enough.

Returning back to the title of my blog post, we should never treat students in the same way. This is upheld when disciplining students or handing out rewards for effort in the classroom. We recognise this when helping guide students in their GCSE and A Level choices. This idea guides our lesson planning and even in-house and Ofsted observations. It even helps us decide whether or not to enter them for the Foundation of Higher tier paper. Yet it is not upheld when we receive their results. And this squashes all sense of pride in the student when their hold the result they’ve worked so hard for. It places fear in the hearts of teachers as we drive to school on results day terrified that we will have to comfort students who have over achieved but still have to face the reality that it’s not good enough and they have to try again next year. And worse still that everyone in the college of sixth form will know that you failed as you walk into GCSE resit lessons and turn up to the same revision sessions as Y11 students: no wonder several of the resitters this year were reluctant to attend lessons and revision sessions as they must have felt embarrassed.

There is only one way that I would like you to treat students the same and this is when celebrating their successes. All over achievement should be celebrated, no matter what grade it results in. All students who achieve their target grade should be celebrated equally regardless of what grade the target actually is. All students who underachieve should face the same consequences, no matter what grade they come out with.

Please stop this current madness of the way you treat my students. And on behalf of all those I have taught and will teach I beg you to start treating them fairly. I beg you to treat all achievement and over achievement the same.

Year 11: Preparing for the mock

I realised the other day that I haven’t blogged about my Y11 class for a while and I started to ask myself why. Eventually I came to realise that I’m scared. I haven’t looked at their persuasive writing coursework yet, whereas I marked their creative writing piece Friday evening (unheard of for me!) I’m worried that I may not see another set of marks which show such great improvement. I’m worried that I may have let them down.

Yet, here I am early on a Saturday morning with my laptop out writing them a mock revision guide… oh, and blogging about them again!

They have had quite a journey since the last time I wrote about them.

Since coming back from the holidays 4 of my boys have turned into right numpties! They’ve ditched a lesson or two (luckily not mine), but they had a huge reality slap when they realised that ditching that lesson may have consequences on their English lessons. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the two conversations I had with those three boys. I should have realised that something was amiss when one of them turned up to my after school class – he’s never been to one before! But at the end of it two of them told me what they’d done and how they may be placed in alternative learning until the end of the course now (they’re no angels and have been pushing at boundaries for quite a while). They looked genuinely sorry and seemed to have finally understood that they may have messed everything up; that what we were doing in our lessons was so important, so vital for their future and that they could have ruined it all. But it was during the next day’s lesson that it really hit home. My most improved student (the one who’d moved his mark from 5/24 to 13/24) was in the same predicament. He’d ditched with them and was now worried about facing the same punishment. There were tears in his eyes when he told me that he may never be coming back to my lessons. He agreed with me that he was an idiot and said that he knew he may have “screwed everything up”. He understood that in a month he’d gone from an E grade target to a D+ piece of coursework with the possibility of a C on this one to an unknown future in his English GCSE.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so let down by a class before. But all 4 of us stood in limbo last week waiting to find out how serious their punishment would be.

But two weeks on, they’re still in my class and acting less like numpties around the school – although still far from angels!

So we’re plowing through mock prep and we’re behind everyone else (as normal for us), but they’re making strong progress. Most of this progress is down to a fantastic CPD session run by @englishlulu (if you don’t follow her – do! She’s fab!) I’ve been writing quite simple looking worksheets on ‘Macbeth’ which is very specifically tailored towards the Edexcel paper. Getting them used to identifying techniques and a basic ‘fill-in-the-gaps’ writing frame which I have reduced slowly until they’re writing their own paragraphs with only a few sentence starters to help them. I’ve added these to my DropBox folder here.

I have been genuinely surprised by how they well they’re doing.

We have used the new topic to restructure the seating plan for the class. Previously, I had let them sit where they wanted as long as they got on with their work and since November this had only seen a handful of incidents where I had to move them somewhere else for a lesson. But when I decided this, I was worried that we may be in for our first big fight…

Luckily, I had underestimated how mature my class could be. They all moved with no fuss and our three little groups are working really well:

  • The confident (C grade hopeful) group. There’s three in this group and they work really well on their own. One lad in that group was genuinely surprised by how easy Shakespeare could be! It’s lovely to hear them helping each other (and their ‘Macbeth’ song!).
  • The need a little help group. These guys can do it with a little bit of guidance. I am confident they will get D grades (which is great as their targets are Es). They have wonderful ideas and are beginning to really get a handle on Shakespearean English.
  • NCL’s group. My TA is wonderful, I cannot praise her enough. And she works brilliantly with this group. This small group of 3 could get a D, but they will need a lot of help to get there. Together the 4 of them work their way through the sheet helping one another. The fact that my TA does not hide it when she doesn’t understand something and will openly ask me if she’s right in front of them gives them real confidence to ask me for help too. When they are disagreeing over the right answer and she’s wrong and they’re right she happily admits defeat and lets them enjoy that moment of being better than a member of staff and it does wonders for their confidence. The 4 of them are learning together and they are all happy to do that. (To be honest, it’s one of the best parts of the lesson when I see that)

Not wishing to sound patronising, but if you haven’t tried changing seating plan based on topic I really recommend giving it a go. I’d often avoided it in the past as it’s extra hassle and I don’t always have the energy to fight against a whole class of children. And this time around I was worried about disrupting the delicate balance of our class. But, yet again, I’d underestimated them (fingers crossed I find out the same thing on results day!)

But, I need to go back to my revision pack for them: they’re more worried than they let on. All the tell-tale signs are there: giving up much quicker; arguing; refusing to get started; squabbling; ditching (again other subjects, luckily not mine); fighting (again, I called him an idiot which he accepted and agreed with). No matter what they do around the school and no matter how many other members of staff they piss off, if they keep working hard for me; if they keep being respectful towards me & our TA; if they keep wanting to do well in English I’ll keep giving them everything in my arsenal to help them. I do have to block my ears to everything I hear about them, as far as I’m concerned they’re only the people I see in my room 4 times a week and I really like those people. They motivate me and make me love being a teacher again when I’m feeling the strain. They make me laugh and give me strength to keep fighting against seemingly impossible odds. They break my heart when they finally admit the truth to me: “I’m shitting myself that I’m going to fail my mocks again. I don’t want to fail again.”

This lad has tested my last nerve the past fortnight by starting to show me some of the poor behaviour I’ve been hearing about. And I’d had enough on Friday – I snapped at him. I didn’t take any of his nonsense and told him straight that he was being disrespectful and rude and that I had done nothing to deserve it and that he was being completely out of order. To which he replied, “Alright, I’ll do my work.” But that was no longer good enough: I had had enough of his nonsense. I told him that work wasn’t really what I wanted from him and as I stood up to walk away he mumbled “Sorry” at me. A clear reminder to me that there is a right time for sympathy and understanding, but you can’t ignore the time when they need to know they’ve done wrong. And if you know the student well enough & if they know you well enough you can spot that time and get the right result from it. After working all lesson, and proudly showing me what he’d done, he told me what was worrying him: failing. He told me how all his teachers talk about is the mocks and the GCSE exams and all it does to him is remind him he failed the December mocks and he doesn’t want to fail again.

So, at 8am on a Saturday morning, I’m writing a revision pack for them. Detailed, clear and a little bit fun. I don’t want them to fail again (they all failed the Dec mocks) and they don’t want to either. I want them to see that hard work does get them what they want. I want them to feel good about themselves as English students. So, I may miss my early morning reading with a nice cuppa in bed this morning. I may even miss the final two matches of the 6 Nations today. But they need this pack on Monday; they need to feel confident when they walk into the exam hall. And they need that a lot more than I need to finish ‘The Snow Child’ and have a cup of Earl Grey.

After all they’re my class and I love ’em! (but not enough to miss England’s match this afternoon!)

Year 11: Restoring my faith in students, hard work & myself.

The year 11 class I blogged about a few weeks ago have, finally, finished their first controlled assessment with me. Yes, we are behind schedule. And yes, the process was painful at times. But it’s done now. And what a high it finished on!

 

With a class of 10 and 6 of their CAs marked (one still needs to finish and I forgot to print off three – idiot!) the Unit 3, Writing marks look like this:

 Photo 01-02-2014 20 24 59

Understandably, I am so chuffed with them all! 5/6 improved their marks and either achieved or exceeded their target grades (I assume, as English teachers are no longer allowed to know grade boundaries.)

But it’s more than the higher number which has me so happy, it’s the time and effort they put into this piece of work. It’s their level of pride in their English work: 2 asked if they could take their work home to show their parents, with 1 asking to take it to show to his gran. But it is also the trust they put in me. As I said in my earlier blog, for some I am their 4th or 5th GCSE English teacher. It would have been completely understandable if they had dismissed me as yet another ‘here one week, gone the next’ teacher or just the final straw in a disrupted course. But, to quote the SENCo, they “bought into” me. And until this weekend, I didn’t fully believe that.

Friday afternoon was a time of great celebration to me and not because it was the weekend. Stood in the staff room reading out passages from my class’ work to two colleagues had me beaming and bouncing round the room: they were good! And what’s more, it wasn’t my biased judgment which thought this, my colleagues said so too! I may have gotten a little carried away with excitement; possibly scaring my principal and marking on a Friday night, something I NEVER do!

However, there was a sobering moment. Student 5. He had only matched his previous mark. I am troubled and saddened by this; he put so much effort in to this piece of work, will this mark dishearten him? I hope not, but it’s down to me to make sure that it doesn’t. And I think I have a plan… As I was reading his work, I realised something seemed wrong: this wasn’t the plan he had written. Mid-way through his writing, he had decided to move away from the plan, I suspect the personal problems he’d had during the week had soured his mood and made his writing more miserable. Task 1 for Monday morning – find out if it’s breaks a CA rule if I let him take a third attempt with his original plan.

But how do we move forward?

Come Monday morning, we are cracking straight on with Unit 1, Writing. As you can see from the picture the marks are low or non-existent, so this is a must. The plan is as follows:

 

  1. Maintain our new mantra: Each CA needs to be at least one mark higher than the previous. We will no longer settle for ‘good enough’. In fact, we will no longer settle for ‘good’, we want nothing but brilliant.
  2. Praise and positivity. I’ve tried really hard to stick to this with phone calls home; getting my head of faculty to comment on a C grade paragraph from an E grade student; praising them to their head of year. Our lesson titles and lesson objectives are centred around boosting their confidence: TITLE = Continuing to create a brilliant piece of coursework. LESSON OBJECTIVE = To be able to demonstrate your ability to use all the techniques needed to get a great mark in your controlled assessment. But how to move this forward? I’ve started by writing my own feedback sheets to compliment the marking grids. Small changes keep the positivity alive. I’ve done away with bland titles, such as ‘Objectives met’ & ‘Targets’ and replaced them with ‘Everything you did brilliantly’ and ‘Tips to be even more amazing in your next assessment’. I’ve also not used the uninspired words of the Edexcel mark scheme, but written in my own voice and quoted from their work. They will take these home to show their parents & carers and give them the chance to comment on them, before sticking them in their books: Photo 01-02-2014 20 48 11Photo 01-02-2014 20 48 04
  3. Don’t forget the basics.  Reading through their work has reminded me that I need to run over the basics again (and probably again… and again… and again before the exam). They have worked so hard to include all the techniques I taught them and punctuate their speech correctly, but they are struggling with the basics: spelling & sentences. So, I’m busting out my Y7 English Booster resources to go back to basics. It sounds patronising, but I have faith they’ll go with me on it. They embraced ‘sounding it out’ for their spellings.
  4.  Celebrate. This morning I went out to buy a box of chocolates to share with them on Monday: they worked hard & they deserve a treat. I shall also be calling all their parents / carers on Tuesday (no frees on Monday) to let them know how brilliant their work was (and to tell them about the feedback sheets). I shall also be telling everyone who will listen how brilliant their marks were and asking them to praise them whenever they seem them. But I have better news to share with them – the HoF has OKed pizza! If they get coursework folders of Ds & above they can have pizza on the last lesson, paid for by the department.

 

Oh and for any readers of the previous blog, the Tuesday after school lessons they asked for are still running and I have a steady 3 or 4 turn up each week.

Year 11: New term, new start?

At this time of year everyone’s worried about their Y11 class, but when that class is predicted Ds & Es the pressure, apparently, is less. But that’s really not the case, to be honest I feel more pressure than when I taught my top set with straight A/A* targets.

I only inherited the class and, to be completely honest, I was really worried about the first lesson with them as every bad memory of bottom sets & poor behavior came flooding back in a tidal surge that caught me a little off a little off guard. To give this some context, I have fallen in love with every bottom set I’ve taught but that’s only after taking the time to build a relationship with them: where would I find the time to build that vital relationship when there is no time spare? Especially as for some of these students I’d be their 4th GCSE teacher.

Then the day I’d worried about arrived and period 1 in they came… sporadically… loudly… and late! But I was so wrong! so very, very wrong! They are an AMAZING class and brilliant people. In a couple of days we’d built a strong relationship, to the point where after missing 2 consecutive lessons one of the boys refused to come in to the lesson unless I was teaching.

However, I made a fatal mistake one day. During one of our lessons I asked them what grades they wanted and they all said C, except for one girl who wants a B. And from that day it was decided: we are working for Cs. What are the chances of them all getting a C? I don’t know, but I know it’s not high.

So, how to tackle this challenging goal?

So, far I’ve taken the following steps:

  1. Personal English reports: An idea I pinched from ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’ (which if you haven’t read yet, put it on your reading list now!). The first lesson back in 2014 they were all issued with their personal English report and filled them out, honestly. They had to sign at the bottom, as did I and our TA: we are a team and we all signed up to work together to make progress this term. I am now keeping these safe ready for my comments at the end of this half term and their next report. On their return in the new half term another personal report will be waiting for them. Hopefully this will be a good way to track their progress & build their self esteem. (I’ve got a copy of this in my dropbox & am happy to share: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/c1edj1mxqeflr2f/I2ll6EoD_8)
  2. Creating a team mentality: As I said before building a relationship has always been the most important part of my successes with lower ability students. I spoke to them very honestly about how a C grade was only achievable if we all worked together and matched each other’s efforts: they need to make my effort planning lessons in their homework; I will match any effort they put in outside of lessons & homework by marking mock papers, additional homework & running revision sessions. However, I took it a little further than I normally do: I told them the complete truth. I told them how much work we needed to do on their coursework folders to get them up to C grades. I told them how little time we had to do it all in. I told them that I didn’t know the best way to make that maths work. Then we all had a discussion about what we could do together to make this work. They came up with this idea:
  3. Tuesday Catch up Session (or the Getting a C on your Coursework Class): One of the boys in the class asked if we could have a 30 minute after school lesson for catch up / development work. They all agreed that this would work and said they would all be willing to attend and as I told them I would match their efforts I have booked them into my diary. As pleased as I was with their suggestion and agreement to attend, I am not naïve! This morning I sent a text to all their parents & carers to let them know about the session & that their child had agreed to attend. The first session is tomorrow, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they turn up!
  4. Practice, practice, practice: They worked on a draft of their assessment, but I’m taking an additional week to make them practice the skills again & then tweak their draft. They are not being allowed to settle, no matter how much they’re trying: if the techniques & skills aren’t there it’s not done! This will be developed next week once they’ve done their assessment, as each week they’re going to start one of their lessons with one of the ‘Of Mice and Men’ short answer questions from the exam (Edexcel), which I will return asap to, hopefully, allow them to improve on the next practice! This practice, practice, practice mentality led nicely on to the next step:
  5. Praise, a LOT: This class have very little confidence in their English skills. This has to change if we are to stand a chance in getting any Cs at all. I plan to make at least one positive phone call home after each lesson and I got my chance today. One of my boys with a target of an E grade completed his homework paragraph (an achievement in itself), but when I gave him feedback on it in class, I was so pleased to tell him that it was C grade standard! This has made my week!
  6. Work with my TA: We are so lucky to have the same TA for every lesson and I’m even luckier because she is amazing! But I have started working with her more than I have with any other TA. I need to practice what I preach; if we’re a team then I need to team plan with my TA. She knows the class so well and is able to help me make sure my instructions & explanations are clear, non-intimidating while still being at a C grade standard.

I shall keep trying new ideas & keep updating my blog about them. As well as continuing to drop any resources which may be useful into my dropbox folder in case they help anyone else get that unexpected C grade! (https://www.dropbox.com/sh/c1edj1mxqeflr2f/I2ll6EoD_8)

They are a fab class and I’m desperate to get at least one C grade, but I’m secretly hoping for 9 more!