Here’s one for all my teaching colleagues – is it possible to fully challenge the brightest pupils in your class in a comprehensive mixed ability set up?
We know the answer, but apparently Sir Michael Wilshaw head of Ofsted doesn’t as he showed this morning on the Today programme. He said it was fully possible to stretch those at the top and he had done it himself as head of a failing school. Sounds promising until you hear him finish the sentence with the information that he had pupils in until six or seven at night and then again at weekends. The teachers didn’t get any extra for that and going above and beyond is what we all do already. This is an unrealistic approach to improving attainment. He also said that Head teachers needed to have a strong ethos of academia in the school – but that is the point of school anyway and is aspirational not a practical thing that can be done.
Here is the issue – and it’s not a case of blame, more of facts. Support is required for more and more pupils as we get better at diagnosing specific needs in pupils and because of this the ever decreasing budgets and staffing of Support for Learning departments is taken up with this group of pupils. Why? Because there is a pressure with both league tables and things called STACs that look at one school’s performance compared to a comparative set of schools. The pressure is on for teachers to get as many pupils a pass as possible and with the focus on helping those who need additional support the top end can be neglected.
The “teaching to the middle” argument was also brought up in the interview and Sir Michael said that differentiation would solve that – wrong again. Differentiation for some classes requires three, four or even five different versions of the same task to allow pupils to work at their own levels and still achieve the outcomes. Certainly in English there is no barrier to how well a pupil can do and we certainly see some really capable pupils each year. As a teacher you do adapt to the class and the individuals within it – but to a point, because there is still a curriculum to be taught and outcomes that must be achieved.
The crux of the issue for me is the implication that teachers and pupils are not doing enough to pass. John Humphreys pointed out that the family environment and the input and expectations of the parents plays a big part and I can say that that the pupils who do best have supportive parents and well read parents behind them – it’s not always the case as there are exceptions to rules, but overall I’d agree that this is as important as what happens in a school. Setting and streaming are constantly highlighted as stopping pupils progressing to their potential, but now so is mixed ability because we can’t deal with the spread of ability involved.
This leaves us with an Educational Paradox – improving the pass rate to keep the statistics looking good = brighter kids don’t reach potential/ Stretch brighter kids and focus resources on them = poorer league table positions and more kids failing. It’s a lose/lose situation. Unless class sizes are reduced, more staffing is provided in both classroom teachers and support staff, and the teach to the exam necessity of courses then nothing will change. For me as long as the system is based on a pass/fail outcome we will have to decide between challenging the best and supporting the least able as doing both is very difficult in the time we have with them. University and college will stretch and challenge the most able and at least the comprehensive system allows everyone a fair crack of the whip in the first place.
Ofsted as always are focussed on an area that is an issue but not one that is forefront in a school’s day-to-day life. Maybe they’re right, but then again comparing kids in the comprehensive system, of which there are three million in England alone, to the selective schools one hundred and fifty thousand pupils is not a fair one.