We shouldn’t be pushing our brightest students

Brightest pupils failed by state schools, chief inspector warns

So blared the headline in the Sunday Telegraph article published today, in which Sir Michael Wilshaw ordered a “rapid response survey” into provision for the most able in state schools. I very nearly sent a reactionary tweet having seen the headline, full of the usual ire and frustration at another teacher bashing article in the press, but then I read it. And, in amongst the misrepresentation and misconception, I was forced to concede that some of what he was saying made sense.

That is not to ignore some of the problems, however:

“The report was disclosed after league tables showed that hundreds of secondary schools did not produce a single pupil with high enough grades in tough academic subjects to win a place at elite universities.”

The “facilitating subjects” measure introduced in this year’s performance tables seems to have been swallowed whole and without question by much of the media. Let me just say here, though, that this is a nonsense. At my school, 7% of students qualified for the facilitating subjects criteria in the performance tables, yet almost 25% of them secured places at Russell Group universities. The measure is profoundly flawed and runs the risk of forcing bright students into a curriculum straitjacket which will stifle their enthusiasm and damage their chances of success.

However, it is a travesty that Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s, St Paul’s Girls and Hills Road send more students to Oxbridge between them than 2000 state schools combined, no matter how much statistical jiggery-pokery was involved in creating that comparison. And Wilshaw himself, despite the Telegraph’s gloss, is at pains to point out the inequities that league tables create:

“I would like to see GCSE league tables reformed,” he said. “The anxiety to get as many through those C boundaries have sometimes meant that schools haven’t pushed children beyond that. We need sophisticated league tables which show progress. Youngsters leaving primary school with level 5 should be getting A*, A or B at GCSE.”

He’s right. Although, of course, progress measures for English and Maths are included in the performance tables already and are at the centre of Ofsted’s own RAISE Online analysis. Inspectors are already far more concerned with progress and value added than they are with headline attainment, floor targets notwithstanding, and it is these performance measures by which schools are judged in the current inspection regime. But that doesn’t undermine the central point that progress should be the headline figure in performance analysis, not attainment.

What truly prevented my from composing the reactionary tweet was reading words from Sir Michael Wilshaw which could have sprung from my own mouth.

He said that as state schools were improving, middle-class families were beginning to trust the system, highlighting his own experience in east London. “It is a chicken and egg situation. Parents in Hackney were moving their children wholesale out of the borough, particularly middle class parents, 10 years ago. They are not now. If schools get better, aspirational parents will remain in the state system.”

This is exactly the point I was making in my post “The Past Feeds the Present“. We need our state schools to be so good, so irresistible, that parents who are currently choosing independent schools will look at the options and put their children into the state sector. Not because it is cheaper, but because it is better: better academically, better socially, and better for the whole child.

Finally, then, the crux of the matter:

Inspectors will investigate concerns that bright pupils who are taught in mixed ability classes are failing to be stretched and…pushed to the full extent of their abilities.

Kenny Pieper has written a great post explaining and justifying exactly why the attack on mixed ability teaching is without foundation, and of course Tom Sherrington has it right when he says “every class is a mixed ability class” no matter how selective your intake or rigorous your setting. These great bloggers tackle the first part of that paragraph far better than I could, so I would urge you to follow those links and see what I mean.

“Are schools pushing them in the way they should be pushed and are pushed in the independent sector and in the selective system?”

What I really take issue with is the idea that teachers should be “pushing” children at all. I don’t see the job of teaching to be “pushing” anyone. I don’t want to be standing behind my class, shoving them up to their potential; such an image has connotations of coercion and reminds me of the metaphorical donkey-driver with a stick but no carrot. If anything, teachers should be pulling the students up by challenging them to reach their potential – or beyond. I see the job of the teacher to raise students’ aspirations, to set sky-high expectations of every child and to refuse to give up on believing that the the child is capable of reaching them. The job of the teacher is to provide the skills, knowledge, resources, climate and environment for each child to thrive. In my lessons I want to create a space above where my students are currently achieving, into which they pulled as if I had opened an airlock door onto a vacuum. I don’t want to push them out of the door – I want them to be pulled through because they know what is expected of them and they want to achieve it. This is perhaps what Tom Sherrington means by “A Total Philosophy” for gifted and talented; and as he says in his excellent post comparing the experiences of comprehensive and selective education:

“The idea of learning without limits has to be the goal. It is not about pushing; it is more a question of removing barriers or taking off the lid; of getting out of the way.”

We need to provide this culture of learning without limits for all our students, not just the brightest, and raise their aspirations to the point that they are pulled towards their potential – no pushing required.

2 thoughts on “We shouldn’t be pushing our brightest students

  1. And I would disagree that selective and independent schools routinely ‘push’ their pupils anyway. In the schools in which I’ve taught we did have high expectations for pupils and encouraged them to achieve their best (and that means outside the classroom as well as in it) but we didn’t ‘push’ in the sense Sir M seems to feel is taken as read in such schools. In the girls’ schools where I was deputy and head I would say we actually spent more time encouraging those who were tempted to work TOO hard to get the balance right.

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