Pupils not allowed to fail/underachieve

Currently, in our school, if pupils are deemed underachieving in a subject then the HOD is challenged as to what they are doing/have done about it. The expectation is that they hassle/harass their departments into eliminating all underachievement.

Teachers are required to record all their “interventions” with “underachieving” pupils as evidence that we are doing our jobs properly. The HOD and DHOD then present this to SLT as evidence that they are doing their jobs properly.

This has several quite pernicious knock on effects.

I would argue that in KS3 this is insane for several reasons.

  1. The system of leveling children is rubbish. Thinking sub-levels tell you anything useful is insane.
  2. Levels used for these judgments are based on SATs papers taken 3 times per year. As an experiment I gave my pupils a different SATS paper every lesson for a week. The variation in results was huge.
  3. Teachers are likely to mark generously given the “none may underachieve” climate generated.
  4. Teacher assessment gives results dictated by self-preservation.

The driver for this is not preparing pupils well for GCSE, or even teaching well, but generating a number that OFSTED will be happy with for the KS3 results. I have pointed out that as we could report whatever results we want SLT can just pick a number and that is what the KS3 results will be.

We are constantly being asked how “secure” the results are. This question makes little sense to me. My honest answer is “Not secure at all”. The make up of a 4-6 SATs paper is such that a pupil can get a level 6 barely knowing any of the level 6 material. Pupils in my year 9 class got level 6 despite the fact I had only taught up to level 5 material. Someone looking in their book would barely see any level 6 work at all apart from some extension questions here and there. I could not point to any level 6 topics and say they could do it with any confidence and yet I am supposed to say their level 6 is “secure”?. Conversely if a pupil is able to cope with level 5 material in class and for homework without a problem but gets a level 4b in the test then how can I say that 4b is “secure”? Of course due to the pressure to inflate results people give them as close to their target level as they possibly can without looking ridiculous and say they are secure.

In KS4 we get a significant number of pupils with high levels that immediately start getting awful grades. On paper the drop in performance looks precipitous. I seem to be one of the few who notices or cares about this. Pupils start their GCSE with high levels they often have not worked for. They think they are good at Maths. Generally they aren’t. They also have no grasp of the notion that levels/grades and effort/revision are in any way connected.

Pupils that have been lazy and disruptive (apologies, “lacking motivation” and “disaffected”) for 3-4 years suddenly are a problem because they are now “underachieving”. This is particularly true if their underachievement takes them below the C grade. This results in all our intervention being targeted at pupils that are “lacking motivation” and  “disaffected” rather than hard working low ability kids who need and deserve our support.

Someone that arrived level 3 rarely gets support unless they are at risk of getting a U grade. This is because a D grade is sufficient to get them 3 levels progress (thus making the school look good).

Any pupil that does no work in year 10 and thus gets a bad grade gets “intervention” in year 11. This takes the form of after school classes, withdrawal from lessons for small group intervention, Saturday classes, revision sessions in the holidays. All of these sessions are filled with lazy pupils for whom they would be un-necessary if they did any work in the previous 4 years. Generally the pupil who, by their work and effort, is deserving of support doesn’t get a look in.

Thank God, Buddha and the Flying Spaghetti Monster that my subject doesn’t have coursework or controlled assessments. The performance getting pupils to hand in work requires is ridiculous. Pupils that miss deadline after deadline get more and more support. Pupils that work hard generally don’t.

The impact of all this deeply concerns me.

  1. Pupils get the grades necessary to get onto A-Level courses without having done much in the way of work. They are not used to doing homework, revising, working independently, listening or indeed taking lessons seriously. These pupils either change or fail. More fail than change in my experience. This is partly because our school as an institution does not challenge lazyness, disruption and general fecklessness any more successfully at KS5 than it does at KS3 or 4. Pupils in my A-Level classes have clearly been very well trained to pass their GCSE exam but having done so are woefully unprepared for A-Level in terms of maturity, work ethic and basic subject knowledge.
  2. Conversely pupils that are hard working but not very good at subjects or not very bright get the necessary grades to do A-Level. 2 years ago pupils in my bottom set got B grades through sheer hard work and determination. If a very weak pupil gets good grades then that is to their credit and laudable but it doesn’t mean A-Level is appropriate for them and they should never have been allowed on the course.
  3. Giving pupils the message if they don’t do any work someone will do it for them and that they don’t need to revise because the school will put on revision classes and interventions for them if they don’t is counterproductive for the pupils and sets them up to fail further down the line.
  4. Pupils who do not work are rewarded with intervention. Pupils who do work are punished or ignored by being passed over for intervention. This obviously has a knock on effect on work ethic and behavior.
  5. If a pupil is underachieving in most subjects then simply berating a load of teachers is hardly going to solve the problem. Heads of Year, SLT, parents AND teachers should be combining to address that.
  6. SLT are responsible for the ethos of the school and the learning environment. If pupils do not expect to have to do what they are told or do any work then surely it is they who should be coming up with some sort of strategy for addressing that. Telling teachers their results aren’t good enough is unlikely to successfully address the situation.
  7. Many ex-pupils I have spoken to have been completely unable to hold down a job because of their attitudes to authority and their belief that following instructions and doing some work are entirely optional.

The  idea that pupils have ownership of their results and that they should get the results their ability, work and effort deserve is not a popular one at the moment but I believe that if we wish to see genuine improvements in standards (standards meaning what pupils leave school knowing and able to do rather than OFSTED ratings and exam results) then some ownership of and accountability for results needs to be given back to pupils. Along with that the exams need to be fundamentally changed so that they actually do what they are supposed to do.

Otherwise the ridiculous situation will continue, where those who have created and maintained a system that causes grade inflation whinge on endlessly about grade inflation. Where those responsible for a system that systematically makes exams easier whinge on endlessly about the numeracy and literacy standards of those who have passed the exams.



12 thoughts on “Pupils not allowed to fail/underachieve

  1. Shaun

    20/30 pupils in my y6 class also scored a level 6 on the 4-6 test. Most of them did not answer any level 6 questions at all. That test is so badly designed it is untrue. Of them 20 all were teacher assessed as between 4a and 5a but I just wanted to see what the results of that test would be. Crazy!!!!

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      One of my year 9 pupils took SATS papers and got got 3a on Monday, 5c on Tuesday, 5a on Thursday, and 4b on Friday. What little work there is in book is mostly level 5 and mostly correct. What level is he? Does giving him a level mean anything?

  2. marvinsuggs

    Everything I’ve read rings true. Very, very true. We began the GCSE course early in Yr 9 so at the end of the year we set them some real GCSE exam questions as a progress check and they did terribly. Only the top set achieved anything you could regard as a pass. Parents were outraged because clearly we hadn’t taught them properly and apparently we didn’t help them enough with revision (the point was to sort between kids who would take responsibility for their learning and those that wouldn’t). The responsibility was firmly planted on our shoulders – a veritable Spanish Inquisition to the extent that it was suggested that we move the grade boundaries to accommodate them. Where do you begin? We have an unhealthy obsession with levels, the kids have an obsession with levels as opposed to what they are learning. Over inflated levels from Primaries are passed on to us which we have to work with (I’m not blaming them). If kids slip back levels the finger is pointed. I’ll stop there before I wind my self up. A great talking point. Nice post.

  3. Sara

    Most of your argument seems to suggest that pupils should be in an environment where they learn the importance of making an effort. Agreed. In that case, why do you think your hard-working but weak students (from point 2) should not be admitted to A Level courses when they get Bs? Aren’t we just looking at pupils who have become strong through their hard work and have proved they have the necessary determination to tackle A Level? If you’re interested, C. Dweck discusses the importance of effort v a fixed quota of intelligence in her book on mindsets.

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      I’m very familiar with Dweck’s work and I broadly agree with it. However in my experience pupils need certain levels of ability and knowledge to be successful in Maths A-Level. A weak student getting a B in Maths GCSE is commendable. It does not however mean they will be successful in the A-Level. In my experience pupils who are weaker have not been exposed to much of the B, A and A* content that is almost assumed knowledge at A level. They start the course behind and in my experience rarely catch up.

      I do not agree with setting pupils up to fail.

  4. Steve

    We hold our HODs accountable for such underachievement and ask them what intervention they have put in place. Big difference is that we are not looking for extra lessons etc. where the student is being lazy but rather for detentions, phone calls or meetings with parents, being on report-card or referral where these have not been effective.

    Just ignoring the matter is not acceptable. These are children making mistakes and it is our job to try and ensure that these mistakes are short term and do not become patterns of behaviour.

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      HODs being accountable is not the problem. Teachers being accountable is not the problem. I’m not advocating a system with no accountability. I am merely suggesting that the balance is currently wrong. I do all the interventions you describe as a matter of course yet whenever a pupil’s achievement in my class is discussed we have to go through the entire list of possible interventions as if the likely cause of the underachievement is a failure on my part to do some vital intervention rather than the pupil’s determination to not do any work or not behave. There are always going to be pupils for whom none of these interventions work. Bouncing those pupils back to teachers or implying that the teacher is at fault is fundamentally unhelpful.

      I am also saying that using levels as a measure of pupil progress leads to bad target setting, flawed assessment and thus pupils identified as underachieving may not be. This in turn can easily lead to the situation I describe where levels are inflated by teachers.

      It’s not a question of ignoring the matter. It’s a question of getting the balance right when it comes to who is ultimately responsible for pupil progress. Blaming HODs and teachers helps no one. Unless there is a problem with the practice of a teacher or middle leader that has been identified there should not be fingers pointed and implications of fault if pupils are underachieving.

      On a separate note, the expectation that I be able to list the interventions for each underachieving child combined with the way in which we judge underachievement essentially means I have to record every detention, phone call home etc. We do not have an adequate system for doing so. I have enough to do already.

      1. Steve

        I agree with this and the initial post.

        The point I was trying to make was that the word ‘intervention’ seems to have been hijacked nationally to mean ‘extra catch-up lessons’ and the like which are short term for the symptoms but don’t cure the cause.

        It’s not about pointing fingers but about ensuring all in school work together in a joined up way.

        I do believe that we should record the interventions applied. Slt need to put something in place to let this happen without impact on your workload.

        As a hod I had some dedicated admin support. I scribbled a brief note of a phone call into a book or handed in the detention list and my admin support ensured it was recorded on a school system.

        All other staff in school (HODs, Hoys, SLT etc.) could see these so patterns of probs and previous or ongoing attempts to solve could be seen.

        Was the prob widespread or just my subject? Had there been string of calls home or would I be the first? Especially useful if a parent played the ‘he is ok in all other subjects’ card!

      2. bigkid4 Post author

        In our school interventions are definitely short termist in nature. The results must go up every year. The underlying problems are the same as they were 5 years ago. They remain acknowledged but unaddressed. I believe this is because addressing issues like pupil apathy, lethargy and a lack of engagement with school and learning is really hard whereas hassling teachers into working harder and doing after school classes is easier intellectually in comparison.

        There is also an issue around target setting. If “ambitious” targets are set then we have to accept that a pupil that does not meet their target is not necessarily underachieving.

        I completely agree that systems in place for recording interventions would be a massive help. Our school does not really have these systems which makes communication and joined up thinking hard. Without an awareness that certain pupils are causing problems across the board nuanced interventions are difficult and it is sometimes hard to find a gap in some pupils busy schedule of catch up classes and detentions.

        The long term plan seems to be raising targets and hassling teachers to meet them. I’m not sure why anyone thinks that will work.

  5. Steve

    Such short termist ‘solutions’ might work for a year or two in increasing ‘headlines’ for the school but at what cost? When staff can give (or have taken!) no more then results will collapse like a pack of cards.

    Schools have to grasp the nettle and attack causes of problems – not just the symptoms otherwise they will return.


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