Can everybody succeed?

When I listened to John Tomsett speak about his whole-school growth mindset approach at #TLT13, I felt genuinely inspired. John has helpfully summarised his talk here. Head of Year and science teacher Ashley Loynton, who was sat next to me, is currently running a pilot project at our school ahead of a wider roll-out of growth-mindset strategy, which you can read about here. One of the most interesting aspects of this development for me is testing my own thinking about growth mindset. Do I really buy into Dweck’s ideas? Harry Webb has sounded a note of caution, and I take the points he makes in his blog about the dangers of a growth mindset bandwagon being misunderstood and misused. However, the blog which really got me thinking about my own approach to growth mindset was Mark McCourt’s Every Single Child Can Pass Maths back in March. Mark is an ex-colleague of mine and I have complete faith in his assessment of things educational. His excellent blog argues that, given the right conditions and approach, every single child can pass Maths – i.e. become a functionally numerate mathematician at Level 2 standard. So the question I pose myself as a Deputy Head in charge of the curriculum is, do I believe it is possible for every single child to “pass” Maths and English at Key Stage 4?

It is very clear that some in the political sphere do not. Dominic Cummings, ex-special advisor to Michael Gove, argued in his paper Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities that genetics has a far greater influence on educational outcomes than teaching. This week, Boris Johnson has poured scorn on the 16% of “our species” with IQs below 85 with a clearly deterministic view linked to Cummings’ philosophy. I reject these approaches instinctively – they make my skin crawl – but I need to force myself to examine them rationally. Am I wasting my time? Are there some kids who, no matter how hard we try, are never going to pass Maths and English?

One barrier to overcome is comparable outcomes. A Level 2 pass – currently a grade C and GCSE – is no longer linked to a standard set of criteria. Although grade descriptors still exist in the appendices of English specifications, the assessment criteria provide only a numerical mark which is scaled to a uniform mark scale (UMS) in each exam season to award grades comparable with previous seasons. In other words, to make sure we don’t get more Cs, As or A*s this year than last year. This statistical determinism bears a striking resemblance to Cummings and Johnson’s arguments, in that it presupposes that better teaching will not increase the proportion of young people meeting the standard year-on-year. Which rather makes me wonder exactly how schools are supposed to deliver Sir Michael Wilshaw’s vision of continuous improvement in results when the results can only ever be comparable to the previous seasons…

The conclusion I’ve reached is that I think that Johnson, Cummings and comparable outcomes are wrong. Plain wrong. And that I do, as Mark McCourt does, genuinely believe that every child can pass Maths and English with the right conditions. I could not bring myself to stand in front of a class if I genuinely believed that some of them had been born incapable of succeeding. But of course they don’t all succeed currently, so what needs to change?

My thoughts on this are still being formed. I am writing this really to test out my own beliefs – will they stand up to public scrutiny? This is the true advantage of edublogging for me. If I find myself unable to defend my position on any of this over the coming weeks I’ll know I didn’t have it right in the first place. Where I find myself on firmer ground I’ll know I’ve found a true value. Here’s what I think we need to do if all children are to “pass” English and Maths:

  1. We need to all believe that all children can succeed – without this inherent belief failure and underachievement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

  2. We need to get the early basics right – the building blocks of successful literacy and numeracy must be secure or the whole edifice will tumble. The accountability system at primary school encourages teachers to move children onwards and upwards to the next level when it should be encouraging complete security at the level below. As I argued here, I don’t blame Year 6 teachers for coaching children to the new Level 6 tests but I worry about the security of the level 5 work underpinning it.

    Graphic (via @headguruteacher)

  3. The role of the family is vital – this month’s #blogsync deals with this topic and Tom Sherrington has written with characteristic vigour about the benefits of the “pushy parents” and the cognitive gaps between rich and poor. One of my most popular posts dealt with the Matthew Effect which argues that those who are brought up in word-rich environments where families value education have an intellectual and cultural capital which allows them to progress more rapidly still, whilst those who are not have nothing to grip on to education with. Changing the culture of those families who do not value education is a lifetime’s work, but there is no more important work for a teacher than that.
  4. All abilities should work together – hiving off the most able into separate streams, sets or schools sets a cap on the aspirations of those left behind whatever numerical cap is dictated by budget or facilities. Kenny Pieper lays out the case for all ability education here, and I have argued about the social importance of mixing all abilities and social backgrounds here. If a student is in a class – or a school – where they never get to see what a C looks like, much less an A*, how can we hope that they will aspire to achieve one?
  5. The core should be run through the whole curriculum – literacy and numeracy are the keys which unlock other learning. Every teacher should be developing knowledge, understanding and skills in these areas every day by providing explicit teaching of the literacy and numeracy elements of their specialisms. Requiring deliberate practice of literacy and numeracy skills should be part of the repertoire of every teacher, not just in a box-ticking “literacy across the curriculum” add-on but in a fundamental, foundation stone way. 
  6. We should abandon Key Stages so phases can work together – some students arrive in Year 7 too far behind for secondary schools to close the gaps enough. Every week in #SLTchat somebody mentions the importance of EYFS. I find the divisions into key stages unhelpful as it implies a shift where there should be a continuum. Anything we can do to collaborate and work together cross-phase is a must if we as a system are to turn out literate and numerate adults.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.


15 thoughts on “Can everybody succeed?

    • That’s an excellent point. Every student who leaves education with strong literacy and numeracy skill is then able to provide a future family environment for their children which is literate and numerate, thus perpetuating success in the system. Every teacher in the classroom with a strong basis in literacy and numeracy teaching (whatever their specialism) provides a similarly positive environment, so you are absolutely right that this needs to be a key element of ITT and continuing teacher CPD.

  1. I enjoyed this post, but disagree with point 4. I am a maths teacher in an 14-18 comprehensive school. I can see no way that students of all ability can be in the same class together. The gap is too wide and the needs too different.

    • Yes, that’s a tricky issue. I’m not against setting in particular subjects and I know that Maths is particularly important in this case due to the content. Where setting is a conscious decision because it’s the best way to deliver the curriculum then fine. Where it’s the default position, or where a student’s behaviour influences the set they’re in rather than their academic ability, or where parental pressure is allowed to influence setting decisions, the edifice crumbles and it becomes social segregation – and that’s what I’m against. Mixed ability should be the default position (in my view) and setting where necessary. What I find most difficult (and which might be most difficult to change) is the social segregation of intake by postcode…perhaps that’s another blog entirely.
      Thank you for your comment – it’s helped me to refine my rather broad-brushstrokes approach for the future!

  2. “It is a great shame and disappointment that the official summary of research into grouping published by the Department for Education is worthless.”

    Seriously? I can find you much more worse stuff than that put out by the education department (under its various names) over the years. There was SEN advice which actually endorsed wobble boards for dyslexics. There was a pamphlet on learning styles that quoted from NLP publications. There were even things that recommended Brain Gym.

    You have to look at the evidence directly and evaluate its reliability. That’s all I’m saying.

  3. Not your key point (?), but if GCSE grades are awarded every year to maintain the previous year’s split of grades, then it will only be possible to see where an individual child ranks among their peers. Under these circumstances then it would not be possible for every child to ‘succeed’ (if success is measured as C or better). [Much better would be GCSE grades that were absolute, in that every student who had a specific level of understanding/ability in a subject was awarded the corresponding grade. Problem is, ensuring an absolute standard to compare performance against appears too difficult to achieve.]
    There are clearly a multitude of factors that determine how well an individual student performs (across a range of timescales). Intrinsic ability must be one of them, but could easily not be the most important at any given point in time. I think that starting off (as an educator) with the view that certain individuals are inherently limited, and therefore of less worth of edu-effort, indicates a very narrow view of what education is about. However, if the definition of ‘success’ is based only on an exam grade then there will be students who don’t ‘succeed’ regardless of the educational attitude. Under these circumstances the best that can be done is to strive for ‘success-potential’ blindness, wherein it is supposed that those children who will succeed are ‘hidden’ from the system so all must be taught as if they might be the successful ones. This feels like a construct to achieve the aim of ensuring that all students have an opportunity to reach their full potential. I think we need to be clearer on what ‘success’ is.

    • Thank you for this detailed response! Really helpful – and you’re not the first to suggest a clearer definition of “success” in educational terms might be helpful! A good thing to pick up in future blogs…

  4. Pingback: 365 days in my shoes Day 346 | high heels and high notes

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