Improving study habits in the transition from KS4 to KS5

The focus of this think piece is improving the transition of students from KS4 to KS5, particularly with an emphasis on their ability to cope with the demands of KS5 study and the habits that are needed to be successful during their time in sixth form. Ashley-May Caswell, SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow writes…

We know that success looks different for everyone and that study habits and exam results are not the only indicators of success; what we also know is that for the standard profile of our students, strong results are one of the best indicators for improved socio-economic stability for their own futures when they have often come from families and communities where this has not been the case.

When I joined the sixth form in early spring term in 2020, we suddenly had to focus on creating a programme and provision that might support students with transition. We had noticed as a sixth form team that large numbers of our students struggled with the workload set, how to manage it, how to successfully complete tasks or homework’s that relied on independent study, and did not know how to use a study period in a way which was effective. It was as a result of this realisation and some additional resource on the team, that we decided to work on improving our students attitudes and capabilities where independent study was concerned,

Context of the academic years, 2019-20/2020-21

It is unlikely that I need to explain the events that led to the academic year being cut short but it might be useful to highlight how this disrupted our planned programme for improving the study habits of students and how it, to a tangible extent, put our students ‘back’ somewhat. A set of programmes and initiatives were launched in the spring when I joined the sixth form team. Of course by March, these programmes were halted completely and the focus for remote learning switched to ensuring that the welfare of our students was being catered for which was soon followed by thinking about how we could continue to support them emotionally whilst ensuring that work was happening remotely; we were very aware that our students’ profiles matched exactly those who would ‘fall through the cracks’ during the national lockdown, in terms of the educational context.

A report by the Edge Education Foundation stated that ‘figures from an online survey of 4,000 parents in England by the Institute of Fiscal Studies carried out between April and May shows that children from better-off households are spending 30% more time each day on educational activities than are children from the poorest fifth of households.’

It is no surprise to learn that students in a sponsored academy in a borough of south London fall into this category. The beginning of the new academic year saw us focus on a recovery curriculum; both in the sense of making sure that our students felt prepared emotionally for the year that was ahead, but also ensuring that we were informed in terms of how to plug the content, skills and learning gaps – when we were sure that the students were at a place to digest this. The focus for the autumn term was very much on getting the basics of learning right and addressing the traumas born out of the last few months. The fallout for the programmes and initiatives means that there have been inconsistencies in the success of these; they were started, stopped and relaunched with different degrees of success and largely, lots of these programmes are still building momentum rather than operating with full potential.

Context of sixth form

2019-20

Sixth form is a large consortium where students might have one ‘main’ site and cross to another site in order to study some subjects. This means that students can study the full suite of subjects on offer. Students study a mixture of A-Levels and vocational BTEC subjects.

  • Mixed sex cohort with 140 students on role.
  • Sponsor led.
  • FSM 29%
  • SEND 8%

2020-21

In order to reduce the mixing of year group bubbles and cross site students, the decision was made to merge the boys and girls sixth form cohorts, and both now study on the same site in Peckham.

  • Mixed sex cohort with 240 students on role.
  • Sponsor led.
  • FSM 30%
  • SEND 10%

General context

A large number of our students come from our lower school provision or other sites led by the same sponsor, it is unusual that we have large numbers of external students join us. This new academic year has seen us recruit record numbers of external students perhaps as a result of our early recruitment programme during lockdown.

Intended outcomes from the programmes and initiatives

We wanted to help our students manage the transition much better; for us that meant that they were equipped with habits and skills that meant, when they began to tackle their new curriculums, they felt secure and prepared despite the challenges that might face them.

We are aiming to

  1. Give the students improved systems and practices that would lead to more organised students (even beyond the classroom), who could manage time and workload more effectively. Another benefit of this would be, ideally, that students then had more time outside of the classroom to pursue leadership opportunities and extra-curricular activities that would help them think about soft skills, doing things that they enjoy and their aspirations for their future.
  2. Improve our students’ final academic outcomes, which inevitably, results in improved life outcomes and a levelling of the playing field – what ever the aspirations of the students are.
  3. Reduce stress and anxiety in students. Without fail, each year, we have a number of students who, understandably, feel under prepared for the coming months and more often these students, don’t fulfil their academic potential. Equipping students from the beginning of Y12 with the necessary skills, habits and attitudes will go some way to prevent these exam time stresses and anxieties.

What we did to change this

  1. Started a consistent dialogue that all staff shared with students about the number of hours of study they did each week, per subject and how they could independently reflect on these practices. All students were given study hour loyalty cards – for each hour they were seen to be effectively studying, their card was stamped and put into a weekly prize draw to win revision guides and book tokens each week. The hope is that this exercise will work like stabilisers on a child’s bike; further on in the year, we might remove the extrinsic rewards but hope that the habits of the students will be built by then.
  2. Regular reviews with students, parents and carers, were focused around the student’s thoughts rather than teachers and staff leading the conversation. Students were encouraged to reflect on their progress and review their effort levels. Simply, they used a number line but each number reflected a block of hours rather than just ‘effort’. This was one of the biggest ‘light bulb’ moments for our students. By giving them something specific to quantify their efforts, they were able to reflect more effectively on how they were doing.
  3. Introduced student subject ambassadors who were ‘experts’ in their fields. Where students were struggling and at risk of becoming disengaged with their subjects, we directed them to these ambassadors. Having a peer to talk to felt less intimidating and offered a different voice to students and often different methods, which helped the students get somewhat back on track. As well as the academic improvements, this was an example of a programme that enabled others to hone their leadership skills.
  4. We introduced prep into tutor time. Each week, students are given a 15 minute window to organise their week ahead. They have been supported in understanding what ‘good’ organisation looks like, how to prioritise tasks, and what a helpful and useful ‘to-do’ list looks like.
  5. Our Y12 induction materials and frequent tutor periods are based around the VESPA (Vision, Effort, Systems, Practice, Attitude) method and helping students to understand the behaviours that underpin this, all of which support their success as a sixth former.
  6. Students are given reading lists for all subjects with supporting podcasts, articles and Ted Talks and are taught how to see the benefit of this extra reading. This has been useful in combating the ‘I have done all my work already this week’ retorts.
  7. We have introduced two silent study spaces which we have found to be more conducive to using study periods well.
  8. A student survey that we ran at the end of the autumn term as well as a student panel Q+A,  allowed the sixth form team to reflect on our students’ thoughts, as well as encouraging students to reflect on how their habits have changed over the term. At this point, no student felt that they have had a ‘transformation’ but lots were confident that they had made some improvements to habits and that prep had been useful in getting them increasingly organised.

What have the outcomes been so far?

There is no doubt that recent global events stymied some of the successes that we were hoping would result in these programmes and to some extent, it would be easy to feel as though we are back where we started. However, we have been able to observe the following:

  1. In a recent student survey (Y12 only), 36.3% of our students ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that they found prep useful as a way to plan their study periods and organises their tasks, prioritising them from most urgent to not urgent.
  2. Study periods look very different from last year and the beginning of this one. For the most part, students are sat down and working on something with evident focus. We have also seen lots of peer-to-peer support which has come naturally. Our work and dialogue has gone some way to ensuring that students have clearer expectations of what this time should look like.
  3. We do not yet have any quantitative data to compare to see if improved study habits have impacted attainment.
  4. We have finally been able to launch some extra-curricular, and at least a quarter of our student body have joined a leadership group. We see being a leader and understanding the soft skills that contribute to leadership as being crucial to being a successful student. Lots of these skills (organisation, resilience, encouraging critical thinking processes) strengthen great study habits.

Reflections for the future

We still have some way to go with this and as a sixth form, we are thinking about how we can continue this work in the ‘new normal’ and think about how we might grow it next academic year too. We would like to:

  1. Introduce a mini boot camp either at the end of Y11 or beginning of Y12 where students have the space to think about their vision for themselves; what they want their futures to look like and where their experiences of sixth form sit within this. We want them to have a clear vision about the ways that an incredible sixth former behaves and the habits that they have.
  2. To enable students to get back into the library where they can study, read and use this space as an opportunity to learn about learning. We would like to start using library data to highlight achievements.
  3. Use more student and staff voice to assess and reflect on our programmes more regularly to ensure that we are on the right path.
  4. Get our tutor time hours back which allow us more time to work on study habits as part of our personal development offerings as a whole. Within the full hours, we would like to use the VESPA mindset programme and weave this in as at the moment PSHE (and rightly so) takes priority.

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