Friday morning. Assembly. Not my favourite time of the week, as the well-meaning young Year Head has a tendency to ‘up’ the motivational talk complete with power-music as we enter. Just at a time in the week when my head is most likely to hurt.
I’ve been a sixth form tutor almost as long as I’ve been a teacher, and I like to think that has taught me a thing or two. I don’t think it’s pushing confidentiality too far to admit that our students, who often do brilliantly at G.C.S.E., have for the past few years not quite managed to repeat the trick at ‘A’ Level. A lot of energy has gone into looking for reasons why.
A moment of frisson. I suddenly realise that the pump-iron atmosphere has gone. The music has been replaced by something calm. The message is not Aspire, but take time to treat yourself well. Work hard, yes – but do it in a considered way. There are people who will support you if you need it.
If in difficulty, Simplify. It is not something modern education seems to be very comfortable with. If you have a problem, convention is to add another layer of management and a handful of initiatives: that has been the approach of my school, and no doubt many others. It justifies people’s existence – but, some of the time at least, it may very possibly be exactly the wrong approach.
Some weeks ago, I spent a good few hours writing up my thoughts on the sixth form issue, because I want us to resolve it. I also incorporated views of colleagues, and I had also gone ‘fishing’ with my present tutor group for their thoughts. Those years have given me a subtlety of approach that means I have a chance of getting something other than ‘pat’ answers.
Talking to a somewhat disgruntled parent a few days ago, a young colleague was pleased to be thanked for the care he had shown the man’s son. The thanks were not for the pump-iron aspiration-mongering – but for showing the personal time and interest that had helped the boy, not natural ‘A’ level material, cope with his course. My colleague was surprised, but also pleased.
Icing on the Cake this week drew attention to this report that suggests relatively few parents are choosing schools solely on the basis of their Value Added scores. Maybe they prefer schools that simply care well for their offspring?
I offered up my report, to an unenthusiastic reception. It looks as though the sixth form is heading for more monitoring, more intervention, more form-filling, more pressure. My tutor group had already told me that they find this unhelpful, that it creates anxiety in some and irritation in others. They know what they need to do, even if some aren’t finding the motivation easily. Perhaps the high-pressure approach has already exhausted it?
In my document I suggested that what is needed is less pressure: remove a lot of the ‘noise’ from school life. Emphasise the intrinsic reasons for study, not what it ‘will’ get you. Play down the The Apprentice approach. Encourage, and create time for quiet reflection and learning. Rekindle the personal touch. I have always found that I get the best response from students simply by dealing in the intrinsic interest in their courses, and by being very personable with them, not simply a task-master. The comments in their cards and presents bear witness.
The Head of Sixth-Form said she would read my comments. I have not had any response; maybe there will be none. But for a moment in that assembly, I found myself wondering whether my words might have found a willing ear after all.
Teachers are often told, ominously, that doing the same thing will always get the same result. Well, the same goes for schools too. Maybe a different response is needed here. Like many schools, mine has been utterly saturated by the imperatives emanating from government; that and accountability culture have bred this macho mind-set that has always felt utterly at odds with the true process and purpose of learning. Maybe it is time to re-learn some of the habits of Quiet.
I can’t be sure that it is my words that brought about a change – or even if this is a fundamental change, too early to tell – but it would be nice to think that they helped. I’m not, by the way, arguing for a free-for-all. And we are not talking about a school that has been slack, where a boot in the backside may be completely appropriate: this is about the challenge of staying at the top of one’s game. In addition to relaxing the day-to-day, I suggested we need a couple of points across KS5 when students do face a reckoning, perhaps even to the point of being required to leave if they don’t shape up. It seems to work in Swiss schools. But it also removes the daily pressure that grinds people down, and frees the mind for the task in hand.
I would add two caveats. Even if my hunch is right, it will not work if this turns out to be just the latest ‘initiative’. Fine words will not do this job alone: what is needed is a deep change of heart. Actions speak louder! And in order to achieve this, all the learned behaviours of the macho approach need to go. It would take courage to give up the desire to micro-control people, particularly when the stakes for getting it wrong can be high.
But I have still never worked out how people’s education is magically transformed by filling in yet another feedback form.