Why Wilshaw is probably right

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Like so many other departments there is often a tendency to give a disproportionate amount of time and resource to year 11, particularly at key points within the year and with certain groups of pupils. I’ve worked at three very different schools and in each case it’s been largely the same: the most support, the greatest amount of intervention and the best teachers are dedicated to one fifth of the main school population. In many respects this is understandable, and in such a high stakes accountability culture it is probably unavoidable. This is our present reality.

But every year I wonder if the situation could be different. I vow to change things in my department by investing more heavily in teaching and learning at KS3 in an effort to ensure that when pupils get to Year 11 they are much better prepared, more independent and do not need quite so much support or intervention. And every year it’s the same. I am never able to deploy my best, most experienced teachers to Years 7 and 8 because of circumstances beyond my control, such as unforeseen late departures throwing a spanner in the allocation works, or having to assign more experienced colleagues to marginal (but often tricky) GCSE groups. These teachers, who more often than not have other responsibilities, then don’t have the hours left for any KS3 teaching – a problem that has meant that I myself as Subject Leader have not had a year 7 or 8 class for over two years!

Don’t get me wrong: we review the success of KS3 at the end of each year – the curriculum, teaching, text choices, schemes of work, resourcing, methods of assessment, etc. I cannot tell you how many times we’ve tried to make APP work. It doesn’t, and we are currently in the process of designing our own method of assessment that does away completely with National Curriculum Levels, and gives pupils and teachers more meaningful feedback on progress. KS3 pupils are certainly not badly taught; there are some cracking teachers who teach years 7, 8 and 9: enthusiastic, committed and incredibly inventive colleagues who inspire their pupils every day.

But these teachers are often still in their professional infancy, and as might be expected from professionals still learning their art, they have not yet reached the height of their powers. Whilst the pupils in their classes make good progress, I wonder if they would progress even more in the hands of someone at the absolute top of their game, the 8 years or so teaching experience that Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan cite – in their exposition of the importance cultivating Professional Capital in raising standards – as the time where most teachers are at their peak.

Likewise, how much better would early years pupils do if I threw as much additional resource into their development as I currently do with Years 10 and 11 – resource that would probably have a greater long-term impact. I  I realise that teaching for 8 plus years does not automatically make you a great teacher. It doesn’t, and we all know of teachers whose years of working with teenagers have clearly had a corrosive effect on their passion and effectiveness. Yet one would hope that these instances are not the norm, and that with every year spent teaching young people – making mistakes, but fewer, and learning from them – teachers grow stronger: that their experiences make them better equipped to help pupils to make progress more quickly. In my experience this level of experience and knowhow is rarely let loose on Years 7 or 8, pupils who would probably benefit the most from the experience of teachers on top of their game, having arrived at secondary school eager to learn and capable of establishing a different ethos.

And this is why Sir Michael Wilshaw is probably right when he says that the brightest primary pupils don’t make enough progress in the majority of state secondary schools. Put bluntly, because of the accountability measures put in place by successive governments determined to lay claim to how their lot increased standards, the currency of more able students has had less value than those on the margins of whole school headline figures. This has had two perverse effects. One, that a disproportionate amount of time, expertise and resource is given over to one or two Year groups, and two within those Year groups higher ability pupils are less likely to receive the same level of support and intervention to help them excel. The best, most experienced teachers are often assigned to GCSE classes, where their brief is to get vulnerable (and valuable) groups of pupils over the line. Some pupils might never get to see the best teachers in a given department, unless of course by the time they get to Year 11 there are in danger of not making progress. 

To a certain extent, this is changing with the increasing use of more rigorous (and fairer) expected progress measures for subjects, together with holistic value added becoming a more of a yardstick for whole school success. Of course, this will help force schools to play closer attention to the progress of all pupils and not just those on the cusp of crucial outcome measures. But what is perhaps needed even more than this is a change in the culture of school accountability itself – a system that always places pupils, rather than numbers or statistics, at the centre of education. Because whilst schools continue to be held accountable to a limiting range of statistics and pitted in competition with each other, their limited resources will always be directed towards those areas that yield the greatest (most transparent) gains.

These gains may or may not be in the best interests of the pupils themselves.