A reflection on the importance of providing Deep Support for learners

In this think piece Jenny Hatherley from The Green School for boys considers:

  • Why do we teach?
  • What is our vision for learners?
  • What do we value in education?

For me, education is about recognising and developing the whole person by inspiring, motivating, and challenging learners in everything that they do. Where there are barriers to a learner, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, it is the teacher’s role to work with the learner to provide support so they remain safe, happy and fulfilled, so they can go on to achieve their potential.

Introducing my think piece

As a new Head of Year, I knew that I wanted my think piece to be centred on “Deep Support” and how to improve the educational experience for those who are most vulnerable in my cohort. Which students were experiencing significant barriers to their learning? Which students needed deeper support to feel safe, happy, and fulfilled? What might that support look like, and would it make a difference?

During the first term, I undertook an analysis of the cohort’s achievement and behaviour points, as well as attendance and punctuality figures, with the intention of evaluating the most important areas of development for the Year Team. The data that struck me as most concerning was that two thirds of negative behaviours logged were assigned to disadvantaged pupils, despite making up only one third of the cohort. The majority of behaviours logged consisted of low-level classroom disruption and failure to follow staff instructions. I decided to observe the behaviour of the students with the highest number of sanctions and noted that there was a lack of motivation to engage with learning, students reacted extremely negatively to warnings or redirections from the teacher, and in some cases, this had culminated in a poor working relationship with some teachers. Additionally, conversations with these pupils during detentions highlighted that they felt disengaged with school and that viewed themselves negatively and as “troublemakers”, adding that they had a perception that staff also viewed them this way. Some also expressed a desire to change but felt that it was impossible.

During these conversations, I encouraged pupils to identify their strengths and how they might demonstrate these qualities in lessons, but it became clear to me that it was important that I developed deeper and more consistent strategies to support these pupils. Having identified the need to provide deeper support for disadvantaged pupils in the cohort, I conducted research into the key issues impacting this group, and one of my main takeaways was that disadvantaged pupils often face a multiplicity of challenges, leading to complex physical, emotional, and psychological barriers to learning. In the case of my pupils, disruptive classroom behaviour was also forming an additional barrier to their learning. All of my reading emphasised the need for substantial school support to mitigate these negative effects. In particular, I was interested in exploring strategies that would inspire positive attitudes towards school and learning, challenge a prevalence of negative emotionality, and foster positive parental engagement in their child’s academic achievement. As well as encouraging the learner to have positive expectations for themselves, I also wanted to remind teachers of the power of positive expectations, which has long been associated with promoting higher levels of attainment and could hold the key to rebuilding positive relationships with disengaged pupils.

Fighting for deep social justice

Therefore, I decided to design and implement a positive mentoring scheme using the Year 8 Pastoral Team as mentors to the disadvantaged pupils with the highest total number of sanctions, also considering any students with a rapidly rising behaviour point total. The aim of this scheme was to engage parents with positive updates in order to foster praise and encouragement at home, and for pupils to build a strong, positive relationship with a designated staff member who would take a holistic approach to the pupil’s wellbeing, conduct, academic progress, and hopes and aspirations.

Outcomes

On a personal level, designing and leading the mentoring programme taught me a great deal about supporting learners. I learnt how powerful it is to take the time to open up a dialogue with a struggling pupil, one that exists outside the classroom and outside of judgement or criticism. It really emphasised for me how deeply vulnerable students are on the inside, despite the front they put up in lessons, especially when they are being sanctioned. It also caused me to reflect on my own behaviour for learning strategies in the classroom and how I might give additional support and opportunities for positive relationship building when students engage in challenging behaviour.

For the learners, in terms of behaviour points, two thirds of the mentees reduced the number of sanctions they were receiving a week. On an emotional level, the programme fostered much higher levels of positivity in the learners and reinforced the ideas that teachers were expecting positives from them, not negatives. All of the learners selected for the programme were happy to have been selected and were keen to engage in a purely positive strategy to develop their education. There were many moments where mentoring challenged students to grow in their mindsets. One student opened up and said that they had always loved Art at Primary School and they were unsure of why that passion had disappeared but was then able to take a step back and suggest ways to engage with the subject again. Another student (one from the third who did not manage to reduce the number of sanctions) opened-up about some tics they had been experiencing and asked for support with talking to their parents about it. Another student, who at the start of the mentoring programme said that there was nothing good about them, was explaining that they were proud of how they had been controlling their emotions in class and they felt that they were learning a lot more. All of these insights into how the students had changed the way they viewed themselves demonstrated the success of the mentoring programme and how they are engaging with learning more proactively.

Of the students who did not make improvements to the number of sanctions they were receiving, there were two who, although they were happy to participate, did not seem to have a significant change in outlook. However, it is not always simple to evaluate changes in resilience, positivity and outlook, and their desire to continue with the mentoring indicated that it was a positive experience for them. What was significantly successful was the increase in communication with staff about the barriers they were facing. In these more challenging cases, it highlights the need for more time to potentially see results, and a more individual and targeted approach to support the students fully with their individual needs.

Next steps

As we approach the end of the academic year, I am thinking forward to the next academic year and how I can amend, adapt, and extend my mentoring scheme to benefit more pupils.

I feel that the impact of this project has been massively affected by the disruption to the school year during the pandemic as in the middle of the academic year we had a term where pupils were absent from a classroom setting and were living with vastly different levels of routine, structure, and rules at home. Relationships between staff and students have been affected by this disruption to the school year, and great effort has been taken to restore learning and reconnect with each other, and so I am interested to see how behaviour and attitude to learning (both positive and negative) present in the next academic year, assuming teaching and learning reverts to more traditional models. I believe that with improved consistency, and more time in school, the mentoring scheme would be more effective.

There are pupils who have had brilliant success on the scheme, entirely reducing the number of behaviour points, and increasing their achievement points. I am mindful of the way that removing mentoring can cause detrimental effects and I intend to continue supporting these students next year, but perhaps fortnightly rather than weekly. I would like to make space for students that I have identified who I think would benefit from positive mentoring, especially considering other groups of learners. For example, high achievers who need more stretch and challenge, or students who have been affected by the pandemic and might need more pastoral support.

As a Head of Year, I will be taking forward the concept of “Deep Support” as I move up with my year group, and I will be thinking more deeply about the individual needs of the most vulnerable and our collective responsibility as a school to help them achieve.

Further reading

David Hargreaves (2008), The Deeps in Action

National Foundation for Educational Research, Ask Research & Durham University (2015), Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils

Pallavi Amitava Banerjee (2016), A systematic review of factors linked to poor academic performance of disadvantaged students in science and maths in schools

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