I used to believe that’whatever it takes‘ was a sign of commitment and high expectations. I don’t any more. ‘Whatever it takes‘ risks increasing teacher workload for limited gain, allows students to abdicate responsibility for their own learning and can promote a culture of low expectations.
Imagine a teacher writing lesson plans outlining what they’re doing for every single subcategory of child; providing 4 different pathways through the lesson; justifying to parents that they’re doing about their child (who simply hasn’t been following task directions) when the solution is that the student needs to listen to directions; spending hours each week re-teaching exam material to GCSE students who didn’t take detailed notes, missed a lesson and didn’t copy up the work or have lost their books; giving crib sheets to students who ‘struggle with writing’ because that will drag them through their assessments. They’re all real examples from real teachers in schools today.
Look around and see teachers discussing feeling overworked, on edge, feeling like some spring term lessons (usually KS3) are ok-but-nothing-remarkable and doing the professional equivalent of treading water safe in the knowledge that gained time will be coming in a few more weeks. Further down the well-being line you’ve got teachers signed off for weeks with stress and other mental health issues, classes being rearranged to prioritise KS4/5 (understandably) and colleagues worrying that they’re somehow not doing enough despite working a 60 hour week.
This is where the ‘whatever it takes‘ philosophy takes us.
Over time I’ve started to come to the conclusion that ‘whatever it takes‘ is a smokescreen, a KS4 sticky-plaster over 4-5 years worth of progress issues stemming from a culture that implicitly tells students that they don’t have to try because somebody will bail them out later. It does nothing for students to feel like their teachers’ job is to guarantee them grades regardless of their own effort and attitude. It does nothing for the student who could achieve well but has coasted for 4 years and is likely to get their C so slips through the cracks. It does nothing for students who believe that they can’t achieve unless the teacher meets a range of specific requirements. But that’s where ‘whatever it takes’ can lead.
The more I hear teachers discussing this the more I feel an increasing sense of optimism that teachers are reclaiming their well-being and critically reflecting on whether the status quo really does bring about the best outcomes for students. It’s worth asking whether what we’re doing is effective or sustainable. The shift towards Progress 8 and linear exams are timely in this respect. Teachers can’t just focus on KS4/5 and get enough students over the required threshold – each child must be accounted for in every subject.
This makes a strong case for preventative intervention. From the second students enter secondary school the focus needs to be on providing a strong curriculum and assessment programme as well as a culture that nurtures independence and responsibility in every classroom, in every subject. By pulling back all the added extras, the need to ‘be seen’ doing ‘whatever it takes‘ and taking a holistic view of progress then we can begin to re-frame the nature of intervention.
Curriculum and assessment:
- Create a rigorous KS3 curriculum that provides challenge and variety. Ensure some consistency, but allow staff flexibility to play to their strengths.
- Look closely at literacy levels (specifically reading). If students are experiencing progress dips mid-KS3 what can be put in place to develop literacy skills so they can access the wider curriculum? After all simplifying texts across the board isn’t going to help those students who have to sit non-tiered papers; what it will do is mask the problem and pass it on to another teacher.
- Teach the difficult stuff and use challenge as a tool for engagement. Hearing a 12 year old ask ‘Would you say there’s an element of pathos in this paragraph?’ with a proud look on their face is rewarding when 8 weeks ago they were devastated at PEA being removed.
- Teach and scaffold thinking. It’s more difficult short term, but nurtures students to achieve without relying on writing frames that act as a poor proxy for learning (example here of using driving questions to raise achievement).
- Remember that most students want to please and do well, so set the bar high. Over time they’ll adjust to higher expectations and will thrive because of it.
- Lots of extended writing across the curriculum, preferably combined with a whole-school grasp of literacy.
- Consider why revision sessions are being held. They can be useful to drop in with students and recap ideas, but if they’re being held as additional lessons when students aren’t making the most of lesson time it’s worth questioning if that’s an effective use of teacher time. That time could be spent doing some preventative intervention at KS3, for example.
- Create independent study resources, revision guides etc. Then a revision session could be supervised independent study time.
- Create home-learning materials to support learning at home. This is particularly useful if you get multiple requests for 1-1 catch-up.
With so much change occurring in education we have a choice: either do things how we’ve always done them and have the same problems, or make some changes that will benefit staff and students.