A game changing reading intervention for secondary students

Some months ago I wrote a post about this research from the University of York which highlights what is for me the scandalous fact that more than half of poor readers are not identified as requiring intervention at any point during their secondary education. In this alarming chart from the report, poor readers are defined as those with a reading age of 8 years or below. 

  (The Rate and Identification of Reading Difficulties in Secondary School Pupils in England: Stothard, Snowling, Hulme, 2010)

The research was undertaken in 2010 so it’s possible that practice has improved since then, but I know of no more recent study. With many schools now employing fewer teaching assistants, and with the focus on ‘challenging texts’ rather than whether learners can actually read them, I have to say I’m not filled with optimism. 

I work at an all ability high school in a selective so low levels of literacy are an issue for us – and we invest in it. We are able to buck the national trend because we have a large team of well trained, highly skilled teaching assistants. This enables all of our weak readers to follow interventions, most just during the course of KS3, some only for six months,  but a handful – those who qualify for access arrangements – right through to Year 11. We use GL Assessment’s NGRT to screen the whole cohort annually and to monitor the progress of our intervention students every six months. The NGRT enables us to distinguish between decoding and comprehension difficulties and thus to select the most appropriate interventions.

A few readers of my earlier post asked about the interventions we use. I delayed responding because we introduced a new one this year, Hackney Learning Trust’s LIT programme.

    

wanted to give this programme six months so that I could evaluate its impact. I write now to report that it’s been extraordinarily effective, despite an  EEF study suggesting that it made just 1+ month difference (though no great claims are made for the validity of the data, if you read the study).

Here’s our Year 7 data:

 To explain these figures, our weakest readers (under 7.11) have followed a synthetic phonics based reading programme – Rising Stars’ Dockside. Like the LIT programme, this is new to us. Formerly, we used Cowling’s one to one Hornet with these learners but we wanted to try a more cost effective and arguably more engaging group reading approach. In light of this slightly disappointing data, however, we’ll reintroduce Hornet – little and often, one to one. 

It’s the students with reading ages 8 and above who have followed the LIT programme, in small groups, for two 1hr sessions a week. Clearly, their progress has been phenomenal. Furthermore, it’s been replicated in Year 8 and Year 9. The data for Y8 and 9 is particularly significant because it shows how the introduction of the LIT programme has accelerated the progress we were already seeing. 

Our current Y8 intervention cohort progressed by an average of 5.4 months during Y7. Half way through Year 8, they had already made an average of 13.5 months. The picture for Year 9 looks like this:

  • Average progress Y7 (2012-13) 9.1 months
  • Average progress Y8 (2013-14) 7.2 months
  • Average progress Y9 (2014-15) 17.2 months

Something happened in 2014-15, and it was the LIT programme.

Previously, we relied on Accelerated Reader alone to ensure that our poor comprehenders were regularly reading books at the right level to secure progress. We still use this but the combination of independent reading through AR with the reciprocal teaching that underpins the LIT programme has evidently made a game changing difference.

I’ll blog again about reciprocal teaching because I now use it with whole classes and that’s been exciting too. I’ve included a few pics here though to introduce those not familiar with the approach to the reciprocal reading ‘super skills’ (with apologies to the faint hearted for our non-uniform day!).

   

 

More of all that later. The main purpose of this post is simply to wholeheartedly recommend the Hackney LIT programme which incorporates these super skills within a highly engaging small group intervention. The day’s training which comes with the £3k programme (a one off payment) is fun too. 

 

 

Rigour or Discrimination? The Reformed GCSEs

A Post Submitted to The Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS) 

EASS advice can now be read beneath the post

I write as a SENCO, English teacher and senior leader working in an 11-16 high school. It is my firm belief that ‘strengthened’ GCSEs violate the 2010 Equality Act and I seek advice as to what can be done about this, beyond raising concerns with the Department for Education which has a track record in ignoring completely the legitimate concerns of professionals.

I have been in discussions with Ofqual regarding the English Literature GCSE in particular but I have not received a response that has really addressed my concerns – which are around the closed book assessment of an anthology of fifteen poems. My concern (one of them) is that those with disabilities such as dyslexia, impacting on verbal memory, will be disproportionately disadvantaged in the reformed exam, unable to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and understanding if they can’t recall a poem well enough.

It must surely be wrong that the matter of closed book assessment in English Literature has never been subject to consultation. Furthermore, what consultation there has been, even allowing for its narrow scope, has been farcical in relation to disability issues. The DfE asked for equality implications for the draft GCSE content and assessment objectives in August 2013. The question, cited below, covered all reformed GCSEs rather than each in turn:

Do any of the proposals have potential to have a disproportionate impact, positive or negative, on specific pupil groups, in particular the ‘protected characteristic’ groups? (The relevant protected characteristics are disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation); if they have potential for an adverse impact, how can we reduce this?

The government published the outcomes of this consultation in November 2013 and the message was emphatic. 63% of respondents said that the reforms would have a negative impact and 16% that they would have no impact on protected groups.

By way of response, a further equalities impact assessment was promised, which I will refer to later. The overwhelming view that the reforms will have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups was, however, simply rejected in the November report:

“The increased level of challenge and assessment principles will apply equally to all pupils.”

In March 2013, the government published its ‘GCSE Reform Equality Analysis’ – the more detailed examination of equality matters promised in the November document. Again, well-founded concerns were rejected out of hand. ‘Expert disability and SEN groups’ are cited in the report as having raised concerns about those with disabilities affecting memory recall ability. The DfE response to this reveals a breathtaking ignorance about the nature of this type of disability. We are advised that ‘rest breaks’ and other access arrangements such as extra time will level the playing field for such learners.

It is certain knowledge that learners with disabilities impacting on memory will be adversely and disproportionately affected by the reformed GCSEs, even if they do take their rest breaks, which led me to start a petition against the new English Literature GCSE – I called it ‘Save English Literature for All’. It closed today. Whilst I have welcomed Ofqual’s willingness to engage in the debate stimulated by this petition, I repeat that I am not reassured on any level.

Closed book assessment places  a premium on the ability to remember many quotations, from many poems, and any candidate with impaired verbal memory will be severely disadvantaged. There is simply no escaping that.

Ofqual has responded by referring to the curriculum aims and specifically the need to study whole texts. I find this unfathomable as an explanation for closed book assessment. Surely the regulator is not really suggesting that a candidate could go into an exam not having studied the whole of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but quickly get a feel for it by flicking through the play in the first half of the assessment?

When denying a protected group a reasonable adjustment that could remove altogether the disadvantage of verbal memory deficit, Ofqual is legally required to provide an explanation. ‘We must know that candidates have studied the whole text’ is simply not an explanation – it is a complete red herring. One that can be traced back, I suspect, to Gove and his half-baked ideas about rigour. He never was able to distinguish between analysis and recall, which sits at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy for a reason.

The real sadness in all of this is that the needs of our most vulnerable learners have not been considered or understood. There has been no attempt by policy makers to see assessment through their eyes and it is an insult to the SEN teaching community to suggest that when we say that reformed GCSEs are inaccessible to them we are simply revealing our low expectations. This is nonsense. What we want is for all learners to be able to access a paper that allows them to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and understanding.

By way of conclusion, I will refer to two real students. First Alice. She has a diagnosis of dyslexia and this impacts on her verbal memory as well as her reading and spelling. She recently achieved a grade C in the Edexcel English Literature iGCSE. She told us that when she reads silently it is much more difficult for her to process text. Understanding that rest breaks would not improve her ability to process verbal information, we gave her a separate room and the opportunity to read aloud. We could not have made this reasonable adjustment, one which allowed Alice to demonstrate her real skill as a reader, if she was having to analyse a poem from memory.

Then there’s George. He achieved our top mark on the anthology question. He also has a diagnosis of dyslexia. I watched him reading, re-reading, annotating, and his result came as no surprise. He is a sensitive reader. His flawed verbal memory, however, would have prevented him from demonstrating this in a closed book situation.

So there are two students, with disabilities recognised in the Equalities Act, who would be disproportionately and adversely affected by the reformed GCSEs and English Literature in particular. There are thousands and thousands of others like them, who will be disenfranchised by a discriminatory examination regime if action is not taken. I would welcome any advice on what can now be done to represent their rights.

EASS Advice

I understand from your email and attachment that you are seeking advice on protecting the rights of disabled students in relation to the reformed GCSEs which require students to undertake closed booked assessments and how this requirement is likely to disproportionately affect individuals who suffer from memory recall difficulties.
The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from unlawful discrimination because of a protected characteristic e.g. disability. In addition, it places duties on education providers to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled student is placed at a substantial disadvantage. In this case, the disadvantage arises due to their recall difficulties, therefore, education providers and examining bodies have a duty to try to minimise or remove that disadvantage. The Act states that where an adjustment is reasonable (e.g. providing the text in full) it must be provided, however, if an adjustment is refused, an explanation must be provided stating why it is unreasonable.
In addition, if all students are required to follow the new requirements of having to recall text in the closed book assessment but this is disproportionately affecting disabled students, this is likely to amount to indirect discrimination.
Indirect discrimination occurs where there is a neutral policy, criterion or practice which is applied equally to everyone but it is disproportionately affecting certain individuals or groups of people sharing a characteristic. When trying to infer indirect discrimination, you would first need to identify the neutral policy, this would be the exam policy whereby all students must undertake this assessment under closed book conditions and recall set text.
You would then have to consider, does this policy have a general disadvantage on disabled students? In order to infer this, you may wish to use a pool of comparison. This pool takes into account all students who share the protected characteristic (disability/learning difficulty) and then considers out of those individuals, what proportion of the pool are or would be affected by the policy. You would then compare this with all the students without the protected characteristic (disability) who are or would be affected by the policy.
If the number of disabled people within the pool that are or would be affected is greater than the number of people of non-disabled students who are or would be affected, you can infer that the disproportionate effect is clear.
In order to infer indirect discrimination, you would also have to show that there is a personal disadvantage, this would apply to the disabled students who are personally affected by the policy.
Indirect discrimination in some situations can be justified where it can be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
With regards to the discrimination aspect, we can advise the individuals who have personally been affected, but we are unable to address this as a wider issue. You may wish to contact the Department for Education and also the relevant examination/qualification bodies to raise your concerns of discrimination.
If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate in contacting the service and quoting your reference number.
Regards
Nabeela
 

 

Talking Self-harm with Parents

 Kate and Marijke, our CAMHS Speakers 

 

Thank you for supporting this event – our third session for parents on adolescent mental health and the second we’ve had on self-harm. I’m going to hand over to the experts from CAMHS in just a few minutes but I wanted to begin by providing some context for their presentation.

 

Firstly, I want to reassure you that we’re not running this event because we have a massive problem with self-harm at Thomas Cowley. Rather, it’s an issue in all secondary schools – the Young Minds mental health charity estimates that I in 12 young people use self-harm as a way of coping. So TCHS isn’t unique in facing this problem. Perhaps we are unusual, though, in that we are actually trying to deal with it. We’re not just picking up the ‘phone and making endless referrals to CAMHS when we’re worried about a young person.

 

So what do we do before we make that call? Well, we have tried to create a climate where it’s ok for young people to open up about their difficulties. We have an annual mental health awareness-raising week and we also teach students how to promote their emotional health as part of our PSHE programme. What we find through this work is that young people are much more open minded and less judgemental about mental health issues than many adults are – so we try to harness that openness and foster a climate in which people feel able and willing to ask for help.

 

When they do ask for help, there are of course judgements we have to make. If it’s clear that problems are acute, we contact parents and advise they go to GP for a referral to CAMHS. If the GP doesn’t make that referral, and some are more proactive than others on mental health, then we make the referral ourselves. 

 

There are numerous occasions, though, when young people approach us just because they are feeling very sad or stressed and they need to talk to an adult who will properly listen. This is where keyworker support comes in – we have a team of fifteen people who are trained in counselling and who provide this all-important listening ear. Most of them are here tonight. Some keyworkers see their young people daily, others might meet less frequently. It’s a very flexible provision and the student tends to dictate the pace. 

 

Keyworkers also deliver more targeted support programmes for individuals with particular needs – so we use ‘Starving the Anxiety Gremlin’, a range of anger management resources and also the self-harm programme that’s available for you to take away tonight. Our students really value this service and we know that by offering early help of this kind we are able to prevent normal teenage difficulties from escalating into full blown mental illnesses.

 

An area of work we’re just starting to develop is peer support. A year 11 student caught me in the yard recently and reminded me of the time during most of Years 9 and 10 when her self-harm was really out of control. She was seeing her keyworker daily as well as accessing CAMHS support back then. She said that she felt that she would never be able to stop. But she did. In fact she told me she’s been ‘clean’ for five months and that she now wants to help others.  She wants to convince students who feel now like she did then that full recovery is possible. So we’ve set up some sessions after Easter and I’m confident they will help all concerned.

 

In a nutshell, what we’re trying to do at TCHS is develop community support and clearly as parents and carers you are a crucial part of that community. We can I think feel very isolated as the parents of struggling teenagers so it’s good to get together. We need guidance too; we’re doing this parenting thing for the first time and it’s tough. I know through bitter personal experience that we get it wrong sometimes. 

 

My daughter is still in recovery from anorexia. In its early stage, some three years ago, I was no more useful than a startled rabbit caught in the headlights. All I wanted was for the cavalry to come charging over the hill in the form of CAMHS to fix everything. The cavalry did eventually arrive, six months after we first went to the GP, but it didn’t fix everything. And that’s not a criticism of CAMHS at all. It just wasn’t that simple and mental illness isn’t simple. For a start, the sufferer must want to get better – and my daughter didn’t – not until much more recently. And I also learned that it is actually families that fix kids. We need guidance from mental health professionals, of course, but in the end we do the real work. That’s why I’m so delighted you’ve turned out tonight. Your role is crucial – and I’ll hand you over to Kate and Marijke now for the guidance you’ve come to hear.

 

Thankyou

 

 

Letter to Ofqual Regarding Flawed New English Literature GCSE

Glenys Stacey, CEO
Ofqual
Spring Place
Herald Avenue
Coventry
CV5 8BA

22nd February, 2015

Re. 2015 GCSE English Literature Specifications

I write to express my deep misgivings about the new English Literature GCSE and in particular the method of assessment, which was not subject to DfE consultation.

Having gauged strength of feeling by way of an HM Government Epetition, I know that I speak for many English teachers when I suggest that the closed book examination is not the most valid way of assessing poetry appreciation. Not when the set text is an anthology of at least fifteen discrete poems, loosely connected in some specifications by a theme. The expectation that such a complex and disparate volume should be remembered well enough for close analysis in an exam is simply unrealistic, and misguided.

The DfE’s ‘Subject Content and Assessment Objectives’ (June, 2013) makes it abundantly clear that very close analysis is required. Candidates should use terms “including phrase, metaphor, meter, irony and persona, synecdoche, pathetic fallacy” to comment on textual references. This is entirely appropriate. Equipping learners with the tools for critical analysis has always been our primary goal as teachers of English Literature. However, never before – not even when exams were always closed book – have we expected learners to remember so much, prior to analysis. I’m sure you will agree that memorising poems in a range of forms and from a range of social and historical contexts is not the same as memorising, for example, a dramatic monologue where all parts connect.

In reality, only a tiny minority of learners with astonishing powers of memory will be able to recall fifteen poems completely enough for authentic analysis in an exam. Most will have to rely on key quotations, identified by their teachers for them as key, and will focus their efforts on making these relate to the question. Others, of course, will remember nothing at all, word for word. And rest assured this group will include some very perceptive readers, unable to demonstrate their genuine ability because of a form of assessment which requires rote learning.

For many within the English teaching community, the difference between difficulty and rigour has been lost in the new specifications. Clearly, from 2015, English Literature GCSE will be more difficult than it ever has been, but it will also be less rigorous. Learners with the critical sensitivity to fully understand the impact of a half rhyme, an extra metric foot, a line break, a comma or a full stop – they will not have the opportunity to demonstrate this sensitivity in an exam which emphasises memory over forensic engagement with text. This cannot be right. English Literature never was and must never become primarily a test of memory.

A simple change is all that is required to address these concerns; an open book anthology paper. Examiners will then see what candidates are capable of when they have in front of them the object for close analysis – rather than just a memory of that object, as with all of the other set texts.

I do hope that you are able to understand this point of view, shared by many practitioners, and that you will see that it is no way a plea for an easier, less rigorous exam. It is rather an appeal for the high quality, valid assessment of knowledge and skills that our young people deserve.

I would welcome your thoughts on whether an amendment to the current Ofqual closed book ruling could be considered prior to first teaching of the new specifications in September.

Yours Sincerely

Mary Meredith

Letter to Ofqual regarding flawed GCSE English Literature specifications, Ofqual’s reply and some thoughts on this

 

An Open Letter to Glenys Stacey, CEO, Ofqual

Re. 2015 GCSE English Literature Specification

I write to express my deep misgivings about the new GCSE English Literature and in particular the method of assessment, which was not subject to DfE consultation.

Having gauged strength of feeling by way of an HM Government Epetition, I know that I speak for many English teachers when I suggest that the closed book examination is not the most valid way of assessing poetry appreciation. Not when the set text is an anthology of at least fifteen discrete poems, loosely connected in some specifications by a theme. The expectation that such a complex and disparate volume should be remembered well enough for close analysis in an exam is simply unrealistic, and misguided.

The DfE’s ‘Subject Content and Assessment Objectives’ (June, 2013) makes it abundantly clear that very close analysis is required. Candidates should use terms “including phrase, metaphor, meter, irony and persona, synecdoche, pathetic fallacy” to comment on their textual references. This is entirely appropriate. Equipping learners with the tools for critical analysis has always been our primary goal as teachers of English. However, never before – not even when exams were always closed book – have we expected learners to remember so much, prior to analysis. I’m sure you will agree that memorising poems in a range of forms and from a range of social and historical contexts is not the same as memorising Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ as I once did for my A level.

In reality, only a tiny minority of learners with astonishing powers of memory will be able to recall fifteen poems completely enough for authentic analysis in an exam. Most will have to rely on key quotations, identified by their teachers for them as key, and will focus their efforts on making these relate to the question. Others, of course, will remember nothing at all, word for word. And rest assured this group will include some very perceptive readers, unable to demonstrate their genuine ability because of a form of assessment which requires rote learning.

For many within the English teaching community, the difference between difficulty and rigour has been lost in the new specifications. Clearly, from 2015, English Literature GCSE will be more difficult than it ever has been, but it will also be less rigorous. Learners with the critical sensitivity to fully understand the impact of a half rhyme, an extra metric foot, a line break, a full stop – they will not have the opportunity to demonstrate this sensitivity in an exam which emphasises memory over forensic engagement with text. This cannot be right. English Literature never was and must never become primarily a test of memory.

A simple change is all that is required to address these concerns; an open book anthology paper. Examiners will then see what candidates are capable of when they have in front of them the object for close analysis – rather than just a memory of that object, as with all of the other set texts.

I do hope that you are able to understand this point of view, shared by many practitioners, and that you will see that it is no way a plea for an easier, less rigorous exam. It is rather an appeal for the high quality, valid assessment of skills that our young people deserve.

I would welcome your thoughts on whether an amendment to the current Ofqual closed book ruling could be considered prior to first teaching of the new specifications in September.

Yours Sincerely

Mary Meredith

My Thoughts

  • I have a complete understanding of the arrangements and would not have posted an open letter without being very sure of my ground.
  • Open book examinations in English Literature have always required the provision of clean copies of set texts. The uneven playing field, now levelled through the closed book ruling, didn’t actually exist.
  • Teachers and exam officers never feel burdened by arrangements which are in the best interests of learners and which enable authentic assessment.
  • My letter focussed purely on the anthology paper because an anthology is a collection of whole texts. A poem is not an extract.
  • Some boards (e.g. Edexcel) have opted to treat poems as extracts so that they can print one in the examination paper.
  • The anthology question is comparative and candidates are limited to lower band marks if their comparison is uneven.
  • This means that candidates will have to remember the second poem named in the question, but not printed, in order to closely analyse it.
  • To prepare for this, they will have to remember very well indeed all fifteen disparate whole texts. The inherent difficulty of this is not acknowledged in the letter.
  • Candidates who closely analyse the poem printed for them in the exam will not be rewarded with high band marks unless they can do the same with the poem they cannot see.
  • Reading skills will not therefore be rewarded unless they are matched by a candidate’s ability to remember.
  • This completely unnecessary emphasis on memory does learners a disservice.

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/74359

 

Please @TristramHuntMP, save GCSE English Literature

Dear Tristram

I know you’re unhappy about the waste of public money on Free Schools and, I agree, that whole thing’s been a farce. Unqualified teachers are another concern, of course. But you must understand that our clients, the nation’s young people, don’t care about these things. If an unqualified teacher is doing a great job, then no student is going to worry about the lack of a certificate. And whether a school is free or constrained matters not a jot to most teenagers. No, what matters to them is fairness. It’s one value they really prize. And what they will tell you, if you ask them, is that ‘reforming’ GCSEs so they’re suddenly harder to pass is profoundly unfair. Especially if there are no obvious benefits, except for those in pursuit of pub quiz success, to be gained from mastering the ‘strengthened’ GCSE drill.

To illustrate the point in relation to English Literature, my subject, last term saw Paper 2 of the Edexcel iGCSE course. We opted for this at Thomas Cowley as a refreshing alternative to the tyranny of controlled assessments. I have to say, I was filled with pride as I watched students of all ability pouring over their exam copies of the Edexcel poetry anthology. They were clearly doing precisely as taught – reading the question closely and then carefully annotating the relevant poems before framing their responses. ‘Sonnet 116’ came up in a question about ‘close relationships’. A gift. All students wrote to the end of the exam and those who had extra time actually used it.

Despite this, though, the experience was bittersweet. More bitter than sweet, in truth.

I’m not just referring to the recent removal of the iGCSE from performance measures either – although it’s clearly outrageously unfair that those young people who already reap the benefits of private education can continue to widen the gap by pursuing these more accessible courses. No, it’s the absurdly draconian ruling that from 2017 the anthology paper must be closed book that truly depresses me.

If you haven’t prepared candidates for iGCSE you might not fully appreciate that studying 16 poems for terminal examination is, for many, quite a challenge. (You do have to study them all because the question always names at least one – as with ‘strengthened’ GCSEs.) That said, my intervention group and I, we enjoyed the experience – curiously, Macneice’s difficult ‘Prayer Before Birth’ emerged as a real favourite – maybe they identified, as students in uniform, with the ‘dragooned’ soldiers of the poem; the ‘things’ with ‘one face’. I don’t know. I just know that ‘Prayer’ resonated.

It’s not then the level of challenge represented by the new anthology material that concerns me at all. I do buy the entitlement argument, and especially after our recent very positive Edexcel experience.  It’s the closed book. The fact that students will now have to file 15 poems (18 if you go with WJEC) into their long term memories in order to pull them out and dust them off for close analysis in an exam. Many simply won’t be able to do that.

And for those who can, why should they have to waste their time when they could, for example, be reading more widely or fine-tuning their analytical skills? Where’s the logic? ‘A’ level lit students don’t have to perform such pointless feats of memory and neither do under-graduates, so why should the nation’s younger teenagers? With 80% of marks awarded for close analysis – not recall – the answer can’t have anything to do with real assessment.

Ofqual must explain to the English teaching community how close analysis will be enabled by removing entirely from view the object to be closely analysed.

Until it does, we can only conclude as English teachers that we are faced with a complete nonsense. One that has nothing at all to do with the study of English Literature as we know and love it. One that will not inject rigour, raise standards, or promote ‘world class education’. One that will instead heap entirely counter-productive and completely unnecessary pressure on teachers and their students.

Finally Tristram, I want you to trust the English teaching community when we tell you that this isn’t a plea for ‘easier’ exams. It’s a plea for intelligent assessment. It’s a plea for a GCSE that will allow us to foster the love of literature that made us English teachers. Ultimately, it’s a plea for reading rather than remembering and thus for the very soul of our subject.

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/74359

Yours, Prayerfully,

Mary Meredith

The greatest teachers are expert at the status game

Status: the position of an individual in relation to another or others.

 

The Status Game

I discovered the status game on a course years ago. Participants were given a secret number, 10 representing highest status and 1 lowest on a ‘status continuum’, and we were asked to mingle (or not) at an improvised party in the manner of our number. I got a 2 and scuttled around, Uriah-Heep-like, asking people if I could take their coats. Not method acting I admit – but then I was a probationary English teacher sent on a drama course.

Despite this memorable training, the little bit of KS3 drama teaching I did was never great. I’d spend so long on icebreaking activities that conditions were positively Mediterranean by the time my classes began any real work. However, I remain grateful for the experience. Not only was the status game always a sure-fire success as an icebreaker but, more importantly, the notion of status and how we communicate it suggested a really useful way of looking at behaviour management. For me, as I’ll explain later, the truly great teachers are expert at the status game.

Teacher as actor

It’s an odd thing isn’t it – how some people simply exude high status, and others really don’t. I remember receiving some devastating feedback after a placement at a primary school on my PGCE. I was being advised, I now understand, that my status was too low – there wasn’t enough distance between me and my pupils. That was something I had to work hard on – like many trainee teachers. Even now, some twenty-five years later, I’m still very aware that I’m acting when I’m projecting high status. It’s not really me.

However, our survival as teachers does depend on us mastering the high status performance with Stanislavskian conviction. We’ve got to think Mark Darcy, not Bridget Jones, if we want to transmit the commanding presence that most students respect. Sometimes it can even seem a bit unfair that Mark can stroll in and deliver an indifferent lesson without incident whilst Bridget, who has spent hours planning an interactive, stretching, objective-driven masterpiece is losing her break to yet another detention. We’ve all seen this happen so many times.

However, and here’s the real point of this post – the inflexibly high status teacher – the Darcy who refuses to appear from behind his (or her) inscrutable mask – will never engage the hardest to teach. Indeed, in my experience a rigidly high status stance can trigger some of the most hostile reactions from this minority of students. That’s one of the many reasons why Gove’s idea of fast tracking former soldiers into classrooms to ‘instil discipline’ was always such a silly one. It would have failed even on its own terms.

The hardest to teach

By the hardest to teach, I’m referring to those students who lack interpersonal skills, who may have low anger thresholds, who are shame-based, frightened to tackle new work which could lead to failure, who dislike being required to perform tasks which expose their chronic weaknesses. Those students who were denied the essential foundation of secure attachment as infants and who are therefore volatile, insecure, controlled still by their dominant reptilian brains. In short, those really vulnerable SEND learners that it takes a special kind of teacher to engage – the old BESD category, now more accurately described as having Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs.

Personal connection

Crucially, there are always some teachers who are able to build positive working relationships with these students. It does help if your subject is practical and enables the fragile learner to experience a sense of competence, but I’ve seen teachers from across the curriculum work their magic. Every school has practitioners who can do this and identifying precisely what makes their practice so inclusive ought to be top of any SENCO’s list of priorities.

For me, it does come down to this manipulating status idea. One student on my current inclusion register has a diagnosis of ODD and he is regularly removed from a particular lesson. When I ask him what’s gone wrong, his answer is always the same. “She doesn’t care about us.” From a superficially tough teenager, I find that an interesting complaint. All young people like to feel their teachers care, I’m sure, but this disclosure and many like it over the years suggests to me that the SEMH learner depends on this level of personal connection. And you can’t communicate personal warmth from a great height.

Clearly, however, the SENCO’s advice must never come across as a request to get ‘down with the kids’ – that would never work. What we’re actually looking for are some relatively minor adjustments to otherwise effective practice that we know, for this marginal group, would make a major difference – such as the old meet and greet strategy, choosing to reveal something of ourselves, referring to a student’s life out of school, knowing who his friends are, showing a genuine interest in the person as well as the learner.

Bill’s Top Ten

Bill Rogers is brilliant on all of this. He doesn’t couch his advice, helpfully summarised in Tom Sherrington’s ‘A Bill Rogers’ Top 10’, in these terms. However, he is, I think, providing us with a set of excellent lowering-status-whilst-maintaining-control strategies. Particularly relevant here is his guidance on positive language. Instead of, “Ryan, turn around in your seat and listen to me”, Rogers advises we try “Ryan, I’d like you facing this way and listening now. Thanks!” Tom Sherrington writes that he started using ‘Thanks’ all of the time after watching the Bill Rogers’ video on positive language, so significant was the change in dynamic that resulted. Clearly, modelling courtesy in this way involves a subtle lowering of status which warms the classroom climate and promotes social and emotional learning.

Take-up time

Another Bill Rogers tactic particularly relevant here is take-up time. It’s very familiar to most teachers now, of course, but I’ve seen it misused. I’ve seen teachers ‘patiently’ standing next to belligerent students giving them ‘time to make the right choice’. That’s not take-up time, that’s a power struggle. We have to walk away – talk to another student, perhaps another one after that. The adolescent, in urgent need of peer group approval remember, will then no longer experience his own status as directly threatened by the adult’s and will eventually comply. Significantly, for the young person with SEMH needs, a fight or flight response will also have been averted.

There’s so much in the Top 10 post that for me relates to status and a willingness to climb down a few rungs on the ladder. Partial agreement, avoiding the urge to have the last word, is another classic. (“I wasn’t talking!” ….. “Well maybe you weren’t but if you could finish the task now I’d be grateful. Thanks.”) Do read Sherrington’s post for the full set of gems.

Affective statements

I worked with one teacher whose management of even the most challenging students was simply extraordinary. They all loved him and, because they really wanted to please him, produced their best work in his lessons. Without doubt, it was the strength of the personal connection, not the subject or even really the lesson content that brought out the best in these learners, fully signed up members of the awkward squad included. On observing his practice, I found that humour was a key feature and, indeed, students reported this as being the essential ingredient. However, there was also something more subtle and for me more powerful at work. That was affective language – the language of feeling.

Restorative practitioners will be very familiar with the notion that, by telling a student how we feel – lowering our status and humanising ourselves – we can foster an immediate change in the student-teacher dynamic. Affective statements help us build a relationship based on students’ new image of us as people who care, who have feelings, rather than as distant authority figures. The expression of pleasant and unpleasant feelings are equally valid: students learn that we genuinely care about them and are excited when they do well. Equally, they discover that when they behave badly it is not just a rule that’s been violated but a relationship. Costello illustrates the subtle shift that’s required in his ‘Restorative Practices Handbook’, our bible when we implemented RP a few years ago now.

Typical Response                             Affective Statement

Stop teasing Ben.                               It makes me feel uncomfortable to hear you teasing Ben.

Talking when I am is inappropriate.    It makes me feel frustrated that you aren’t listening to me.

This is an excellent essay.                  I really enjoyed reading this!

 

How can we work this out?

The high status, unbendingly ‘strict’ teacher is not one who uses the tactics described above and others like them intuitively. High expectations of behaviour and work ethic, vigilance underpinned by expert subject knowledge – these are that teacher’s stock in trade. And we want such teachers on our staff. They’re really good and they command respect. But they are not, for me, truly great because they can never, until they learn to flex their status, relate to the most vulnerable. They tend to be the colleagues who, justifiably perhaps, want to see punitive consequences for misbehaviour when what we really want them to do is sit down with the child, away from peers, and simply say, ‘This isn’t working for either of us very well, is it? How do you think we can sort it out so we’re both happier? I need your help here.’ We just know that a conversation like this, one person to another, would be transformational. It’s a conversation that the greatest teacher, the master of the status game, would have without hesitation.

There’s a mental health crisis. What’s your school doing about it?

‘I’d rather die than eat this with you.’

A missile fired across the tea-table by my eldest daughter. I will not describe in any detail the depths to which she sank or the battering her body endured during that deadly two year campaign. Simply, It was a hideous time. She may be recovering now, tentatively, but I’m still unable to look at ‘Before Anorexia’ photographs like the one above without feeling the most profound sense of loss.

Oh, the things I would tell my ‘Before Anorexia’ self, if we could only go back. Among these, that allowing your fourteen year old daughter to eat tea in her bedroom is a mistake; that agreeing to her cooking her own meals is a bigger one; that frantic concerns about appearance do not reflect just normal teenage insecurities; that long silences; not wanting to go out; checking calories; running after tea; working-out upstairs; claiming to need laxatives – there should be sirens going off everywhere when these things are happening. Most of all, I would tell my BA self that you should never, ever share your own body hang-ups with your impressionable daughter; the one who is bombarded daily with toxic, body-shaming, impossibly thin beauty standards and who looks to you for strength, support and a normal sense of perspective.

Indeed, I now look back at that blissfully ignorant BA self as one who had no real understanding at all of just how incredibly resilient today’s adolescent must be – for all those years spent working with them in secondary schools. The world for young people is nothing like the one we inhabited as kids. Most of us could escape into our homes, lick our wounds when necessary and face another day. For today’s teenager, 24 hour social networking never lets up; the pressures to have access to a plentiful supply of money, the perfect lifestyle, the perfect body are immense; family breakdown is widespread; as exam factories, schools heap on the pressure and to cap it all, the future for school leavers is so, so uncertain on so many levels. Goodness knows, the modern teenager must be resilient.

So when Nicky Morgan suggests that we need to think seriously about promoting resilience in our schools, she is absolutely right. Of course, she should be reflecting on whether Gove’s reforms, such as the end of modular courses (favoured by universities but apparently insufficiently rigorous for teenagers) have added to the pressure, but at least she acknowledges the existence of a problem. And for those who maintain that we’ve promoted resilience for years in our schools, I beg to differ. Not only has painful experience taught me otherwise, a plethora of horrifying mental health data shows that our young people are not coping. We are not successfully building any kind of resilience.

If the point needs illustrating, consider these facts from ‘Young Minds’. One in five young adults show signs of an eating disorder, three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder, one in twelve self harm. This data is, of course, depressingly familiar, but what are we doing about it – beyond bemoaning savage cuts to CAMHS? These are scandalous and short-sighted, of course, but how about schools taking the idea of prevention – building resilience – seriously? Surely, we cannot simply continue to deliver the national curriculum as if there is no mental health crisis; as if a focus on raising academic standards will somehow prepare young people for a successful transition into adulthood. As if they are thriving on business as usual. This would be head-in-the-sand folly.

We forget at our peril that we are as educators ‘in loco parentis’. If somebody at Meg’s school had taken their responsibility in this regard seriously, her eating at lunch might have been monitored – as we asked – she might have been allowed to sit in the warm rather than freeze outside – as we asked – she might have had a mentor to talk to – as we asked – the disapproving attendance reminders might not have been sent and she would surely never have been required to participate in a charity run that resulted in a desperate after-school dash to A+E. Who knows, school might have been a place where she felt safe, supported, understood. Instead, it was an alien, hostile environment where she truly believed that nobody cared and she was only as valuable as her grades.

As a parent and as a teacher, I am changed forever by these experiences. I have a completely different set of priorities. I am determined that my own school continues to develop as one that adjusts to support students who are not resilient. I am proud that vulnerable young people, sinking under the pressure, now transfer to us from local grammar schools and are able to thrive – and learn – again. Keyworker support, liaison with home (respecting confidentiality), a safe haven for break and lunch, perhaps a reduced timetable; the adjustments required are not enormous, but they do make an enormous difference.

I am also proud that pastoral staff at my school do not see their duties as amounting to nail varnish removal – and yes, I am referring back with some bitterness to my daughter’s academy. I am proud that we have a Mental Health and Wellbeing policy which ensures that a team of highly skilled support staff, who care deeply about our students, are trained in bolstering their self-esteem, alleviating their anxieties, mediating with friends and family, signposting to services such as Addaction and Young Carers, and most of all in really listening. We know from the rating scales we use to monitor progress that the impact of these keyworkers is huge. There are fifteen of them in all, each with the capacity to work with two or three students. In a school our size, nobody has to wait for help and, crucially, many adolescent problems are caught before they become acute.

When she was in Year 8, Meg came home after a PE lesson distraught because a ‘friend’ had described her pubescent tummy as ‘flabby’. (No wonder so many girls hate PE if that’s your typical changing room banter). That, looking back, was the start of our two year nightmare. In bringing young people together within our schools, we have a moral duty to educate them in how to support rather than catastrophically undermine each other. All students need to learn about mental health, not just because one in four of them will suffer at some stage in life, but also because they impact on one another so massively. Teenagers doing this adolescence thing for the first time need to be taught how to look after themselves and each other. There are some terrific resources out there to help in this. Body Gossip’s self-esteem programme is just wonderful. We also use the free and excellent @TimetoCgange resources within PSHE and during our mental health awareness week.

Last year’s @NatashaDevonSET self esteem class was launched with this poetry video, made by our students. If you listen to it, you will note the power, passion and honesty of the writing.

Our students want us to allow them to explore issues that are of urgent concern to them. And although they would never admit it, they do look to us for guidance. Perhaps Nicky Morgan gets this in a way that her predecessor clearly did not. Whatever, I think we must certainly encourage rather than condemn her interest in education for life as well as for exam success. Meg got her haul of grades – I’d swap these for resilience any day.