Tag Archives: EEF

I came to the realisation yesterday that our whole school is a bottom set.

I was very much looking forward to hearing Professor Becky Francis deliver her keynote at rEDYork yesterday. I’ve heard her speaking a few times, both as presenter and as questioning audience member, and I pretty much want to be Becky Francis when I grow up. This time the talk was about ‘The problematic interface between research, policy and practice: the case of attainment grouping’, with an overview of the general picture and an introduction the EEF-funded ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’ study.

As our school works up to full 7-16 two-form entry we are finding ourselves in a position where we’re starting to allocate children to classes based partly on their attainment. There are other things we consider and sometimes there are still very different levels in the same class, but there’s a general move towards a ‘higher’ group and a ‘lower’ group. I don’t think the pupils are ever explicitly told this is the case – perhaps in KS2 where they switch up the classes for different subjects a bit more, but I’m not sure the pupils are particularly aware. Anyway, as we’re just starting to get on the ‘set’ bandwagon I was particularly interested in the presentation to see what I could take back to school.

What I found was something much more than a few take-away bits of feedback. I tweeted that I felt like I’d had an ‘epiphany’ and I’m still trying to work out what that is exactly, but as I sat scribbling my notes I pretty much worked out that our whole school is essentially a bottom set and there are probably other schools that are similar. I’m not sure how coherent I can be with what I’m thinking but I feel like there’s an answer to something here.

Our general school demographic matches Becky’s description of the make up of bottom sets – disproportionate representation of low socio-economic status, gender imbalance (we’re designated a mixed school but all 75 of our pupils are boys). All our pupils have been taken out of other schools, possibly after a few permanent exclusions and a stint at the PRU, normally for their behaviour (regardless of ‘ability’). With all of this they’re statistically likely to have already experienced being in a bottom set and many already have low self-confidence and feel like they’ve been written off. Add to this that for every one of our pupils they’ve got a bunch of similar friends back in mainstream, it’s probably not something that’s isolated to our school.

I’m still trying to write about my recent thoughts on cultural capital for a separate post and whilst this has thrown a bit of a spanner in things, I still think that as a staff team, and as a general school ethos, we recognise that we need to instill an attitude that they can achieve and be successful – providing them with opportunities and in many cases, a future. What we probably don’t admit, or perhaps recognise, is that the symbolic implications of segregation and the societal associations between setting and ‘high standards’ are probably so ingrained that we are still creating limits for them. Even without putting any of our pupils in sets, they come to us already matching the criteria for a bottom set and I’m wondering if our associations between the demographic and expectations are so deeply entrenched that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. If staff have these societal preconceptions, pupils have them and parents have them, what happens? Do we just accept it?

If we really tried to analyse our practice we could probably identify quite a few of the factors Becky mentioned – both ones we thought we were tackling and ones beyond our control. Lack of fluidity in groups – we’ve got two classes of c.8 pupils in each year; fluidity is tricky. Quality of teaching – we have a few specialist subject teachers but run a mostly primary model through to KS4 with class teacher to class group in all subjects. Teacher expectations and pedagogy – success is brilliant, but if we’re honest, we aren’t surprised if they don’t get straight A*s (or, for some, Ds). I worry that we become complacent and lower expectations are normal. This isn’t just staff as I said before, this is entrenched in staff, pupils, parents, society. It makes the successes we have stand out – even the small ones. And we celebrate them, and we should.

We are highly aware of the limitations that have already been put on our pupils but I realise now that it’s possibly the tip of an iceberg that doesn’t just impact our pupils and maybe the Bottom Set Effect has a wider, self-fulfilling reach. In more than one session yesterday I found myself coming back to the thought that ‘Does everything just work enough not to be seen as an urgent problem?’ Maybe this is one of those things too.

So what do you do when you realise your whole school is a bottom set? How do you go about changing these subconscious preconceptions? Even if they’ve turned into conscious preconceptions, can we change things? Change is hard and it’s risky.

I’ve still not quite formulated what my thoughts are but I have questions about whether as we expand into KS1 it’ll be better – getting them before the Bottom Set Effect hits – or as we get them earlier, does that ingrain the bottom-set-ness earlier? Are we actually just creaming off the bottom set early? Is that self-fulfilling? What happens when you put the bottom set in sets? How does it work with our small classes? I know when I’ve looked at setting in the past there’s been evidence that the impact is less on small groups due to the focussed attention etc. We’ve got 8 pupils and two staff in a class so maybe it’s not too bad?

Regardless of whether we set or not, I’m still struck by how closely we seem to fit the ‘criteria’ for a bottom set and I can’t help thinking that if we can apply some of the advice that comes from either the EEF trials or other investigation in this area, there’s an answer to something somewhere and I’m not even sure what the question should be, but we can make things better. We can always get better.

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So, I’ve done a few things research-related with our Teaching Schools Alliance now, and when I was asked if I would share my journal club work at their upcoming event ‘Using Research and Evidence for Improvement’, I was happy to. Basically I wheeled out the usual presentation and took advantage of the opportunity to hear some brilliant people talk without having to pay for the pleasure.

TSA01The event, held at the National College for Teaching & Leadership’s Learning and Conference Centre in Nottingham, was a collaboration between Transform TSA, George Spencer TSA, Minster TSA, East Midlands TSA, and The University of Nottingham. It was a chance for the TSAs to promote engagement with research and development in schools and to showcase some of the work being done across our region.

Our keynote speaker was James Richardson from the Education Endowment Foundation. For all that I’ve seen and heard about the EEF’s work at various events, I didn’t think I’d actually gone to something specifically about them and I was completely wrong. Looking back through a wealth of conference notes, I saw James Richardson at TSA04researchED Midlands in 2014. Actually, in my notes* I have scribbled the phrase ‘Research Champion’. That was the start of A LOT. Things have moved on quite a bit since 2014. The EEF Sutton Trust Toolkit is familiar to a lot more people and used in a lot more schools. The focus has changed from making people aware of their work to updating them on research that has been completed (and is being replicated) and guidance to use the toolkit in their own setting. I’ve got lots more bits to look into and lots more badgering of SLT to do. *I have also scribbled that the DIY Guide will be interactive soon. I thought that was familiar when James said it on Friday…

Mary-Alice Lloyd – Vice Principal and Director of the George Spencer Academy TSA, shared her school’s journey to becoming a research engaged school. Starting in 2005 they created a ‘drip-feed’ model of CPD in addition to their INSET and focused strongly on AfL. After evaluating their school’s level of research engagement, they introduced Teacher Learning Communities (TLC), including all staff, that meet at least ten times throughout the year and staff are able to collaborate and enquire on their practice together. Following the success of the TLCs, they set out to use the TLC approach to enable all staff to engage in classroom based research and they linked this with the new Teachers’ Standards and now, working with The University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, GSA have developed a practitioner enquiry cycle that works with the TLCs. This year they have extended the enquiry model to include Lesson Study as an approach.

Providing excellent examples of school-university partnerships was Professor Qing Gu from the Centre for Research in Educational Leadership and Management in the University of Nottingham School of Education. She described the role HEIs can play in interpretation and guidance in implementing findings from research in schools, and the potential for partnerships in fulfilling the role of a critical friend. Qing went into detail about this role with a local school with a focus on the Senior Leadership Team’s role in driving forward school improvement. A report on this can be found here – http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/education/documents/research/crsc/research-projects/kten/brochures/bookletsouthwoldpr.pdf There was a lot of advice about the process of school-based enquiry and I’m pretty sure that if Qing was to make a researchED appearance it would be a wonderful thing.

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Before lunch we heard from colleagues leading research projects in their schools. The first, from KYRA TSA and whose name I didn’t jot down, spoke about their experience of the Closing the Gap: Test and Learn small scale research projects. Whereas our school’s involvement was with one of the large scale projects (Research Lesson Study), many schools were trained and developed their own RCT projects. I actually went to one of these training events that was aimed at special schools and it was interesting to see what other people had done with it. Following completion of their projects, schools were given a poster template to write up their work and these were shared in a marketplace style event. It was suggested later in the day that these posters may be a good source for discussion at a journal club.

Chris West from Redhill TSA shared his experiences at trying to build enthusiasm and participation in research engagement (something many of us are familiar with). Things he has done include creating his own examples of simple research write ups, a research Teach Meet and ‘Research in 100 Words’ postcards. These (I think) are here – http://www.redhilltsa.org.uk/course/view.php?name=Research#section-3 Chris’s focus is encouraging staff involvement and setting the structures in place for this to happen.

Journal Club was after lunch (where we discovered that ‘gourmet’ pies contain either steak or gourmet…), usual drill. This was the biggest one I’ve ever done. We looked at ‘Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?’ (Manna and Cadmana, 2014) and never have I been in a room with so many engaged people saying the word ‘boredom’. It seemed to go down well, particularly with the man next to me who was, and I quote, ‘all about this’. Oh. Biscuits = Cadburys Fingers (lots in box and slim line to fit in bag).

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Last up for the day was Matilde Warren from GSA talking about their use of Lesson Study. As mentioned earlier by Mary-Alice Lloyd, staff at GSA are able to pick Lesson Study as their focus this year. I looked at Lesson Study a fair bit with our research project so I’m aware of how the process has been adapted from the Japanese model for the way it is commonly performed over here. What was brilliant was that Matilde has been over to Japan to see just how they do it and study their process. She’s well aware that there are lots of elements that wouldn’t work here (40 teachers in a lesson whilst the kids just get on with it; leaving a whole primary school whilst the teachers all debrief), but what the experience did highlight was where they hadn’t been prepared and where they could tighten the process up. It would be brilliant to hear from GSA again and see how it all goes.

There’s no way I can write about everything that was part of the day and I hope I’ve represented everyone well enough. As with most school engagement with research, if you dedicate the time and resources, the results can be amazing for staff, pupils and the school as a whole. It was great to move away from the researchED glare and see what’s happening more locally. I know there are a few Transform ideas knocking about and I’m hoping I hear that more people are setting up journal clubs. Mostly I hope people just keep plugging away and trying because it can be tough but it’s definitely worth it.