Raising attainment for more able pupils

In this think piece, Francesca Bernard, Capital City Academy, aims to look at strategies to raise attainment for more able pupils in a North West London secondary academy.

After the appointment of a More Able Lead a few years ago, the more able provision at our academy has progressively improved, and has moved from being a teaching and learning priority to a more embedded aspect of teachers’ lessons. When I took over as More Able Lead in January 2020, I decided that I wished to create a more able policy that was proactive rather than reactive, with an aim of developing independent, well-rounded and articulate students through focusing on creating and embedding an enrichment programme.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, our more able pupils who were previously progressing well began to suffer due to missed schooling, and their disadvantaged background making accessing their learning more difficult. With the unprecedented second lockdown, my interventions became even more crucial in ensuring the progress of these students.

Identifying the problem

After analysing the data from our students’ formative assessments at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, it became overwhelmingly clear that our more able students were underperforming in most key stage areas and our disadvantaged more able pupils were of particular concern. I began by becoming a member of the NACE network in order to ensure that I was utilising the most contemporary research. When I began researching strategies that had been successful in other schools and what new research suggested was most effective in supporting more able pupils, much research suggested that explicit teaching of the super curricular was one way in which to close the attainment gap between these students and their more advantaged peers who were raised with a naturally heightened cultural capital.

Intervention

After evaluating the assessment data and identifying the areas of need, I decided to reassess the school’s previous more able policy and consider what aligned with current research as well as which strategies were showing positive impact on student progress. Although the EEF Teacher Toolkit suggests that certain types of interventions can have little or no impact including mentoring or small aspirational interventions, their research does indicate that after-school programmes aiming to develop more skills in stimulating environments can have a higher impact than simply the inclusion of this content in regular

lessons. It also shows the high impact of metacognition and collaborative learning. I used these as a baseline from which to develop my particular interventions from which this think piece is based. It was reassuring to see that in Lucas Claxton’s ‘redesigning schooling’ plan, the idea of creating students who are ‘learning for life’ was at the forefront of his idea of the direction that our British schools should be taking.

Extracurricular programme

Before beginning the LLP, I had in place an extra curricular programme which provided an opportunity for each key stage’s more able cohort to engage in learning that took them beyond the curriculum.

For KS3, I introduced a Literacy Society for those with the highest reading ages in which students were exposed to higher level literature that would stretch and challenge them, broaden their vocabularies and encourage discussion of stimulating and important topics beyond the curriculum.

For KS4, I introduced a Ted Talk programme in which students researched, practised and delivered presentations of topics of their choosing. As well as presenting their own research, members of staff were invited in to model the process of presentational talk to expose students to different topics, as well as to consider how one might present their ideas in a formal setting. In student voice surveys, this intervention was popular and through my own observations and teacher feedback, it was reported that the students’ confidence and abilities to contribute to classroom talk in a meaningful way had improved.

Unfortunately with the commencement of the pandemic, extra curricular activities were unable to continue and hence, I had to consider a different approach to supporting these students.

Virtual opportunities

With the commencement of the second lockdown, I set up google classrooms for the various more able cohorts in order to ensure that I still had a platform to support and communicate with these students during lockdown. I set up informal weekly meetings in which I made myself available for the students to speak to about any concerns, worries or troubles I had, as well as providing these students with reading and writing stimuli to keep them engaged and entertained during their time at home. Turn out for these sessions was poor, but the few students who came reported feeling supported and appreciated that the communication lines remained open during this time.

I also used these classrooms as a way to share virtual opportunities with the students including virtual talks through the speakers4schools charity, as well as university open days, taster sessions and meetings with tutors.

Enrichment morning sessions

Once we returned to school, I was able to recommence the ‘big topics’ morning interventions with both the Y9/10 group and the Y11 group.

The Y11 group continued with a more academic focus, similar to before, working on developing critical thinking skills and effective revision and working strategies. Whilst I introduced the enrichment programme to the younger students. In the Y9/10 sessions, we debated and discussed ‘big questions’ and topics that aimed to enrich the students and enhance their cultural capital, such as feminism, identity, race, stereotyping, typecasting, covid response etc. The topics ranged from those suggested by the students to those that I deemed important due to the current climate or what was prominent in the news.

The impact of Covid

When I began my interventions, we had just returned from the first lockdown and the students embraced the enrichment project that I was putting in place. However, with the arrival of the second lockdown in January, I was forced to halt my interventions and consider how I could continue to support these students during the lockdown or adapt the support I was able to provide in the circumstances. Attendance during the second lockdown for everyday lessons was particularly poor and when I suggested an online session to students, I received little enthusiasm or response.

I, therefore, decided that the best way to ensure these students were not cast aside, was to create a google classroom for the groups that I had been working with previous to the lockdown and provide voluntary support for them through online lectures, reading lists and virtual external opportunities on their google classroom. This took the pressure off students, whilst also ensuring that those who wished to continue to stretch and challenge themselves were able to do so.

This was not the preferable situation, but it felt optimal in the circumstances and I had to allow myself to step back and consider that we were in exceptional circumstances and the students’ well being was the priority. It also meant that on our return to school, I had had time to adequately prepare particularly relevant and important topics to focus on in our group discussion meets. The pandemic definitely forced me to have to adapt, re-think and become more flexible as a leader and practitioner. I had to change my way of thinking and understand that the students’ needs and well-being had to be at the forefront of any decisions that I made in the fragile circumstances. This process was heavily facilitated by encouraging us in leadership expert meetings and the various seminars to explicitly consider how Covid-19 has forced us to become more adaptable leaders, practitioners and people, as well as providing us with the tools to do so.

A final adjustment I had to make came on our return to school. I found that even with the recommencement of internal interventions, attendance from the Y10 students in particular continued to be quite poor due to the continual changes to their routines and lack of consistency in school activities that had appeared as a result of the pandemic. In meetings with our top 40 students in this year group, the principal noticed that many of these students had the desire to participate in extracurricular programmes but either did not know about these opportunities or admitted to being poor with their attendance. Consequently, I met with

her to discuss changes that could be made to remedy this situation. In collaboration, we decided to end the year with a ‘transition into Y11’ Asset Group, in which all 40 students attended a ‘big topics’ morning seminar with me like those that the Y9/10s were already being offered. We saw an immediate improvement in attendance with the revival and reboot of this programme, and although I will not be able to measure any quantitative improvement after just four sessions, I hope to see the impact in the new academic year.

Outcomes of the project

At the end point of the year, I was able to use student voice and external feedback, as well as formative assessment data, to ascertain the impact of the interventions.

Y11 progress: I was pleased to see that 76% of the Y11 cohort showed progress in their formative assessments with an average increase of 0.52 to their progress eight scores. As well as this, all the students in the sessions gained places at their first choice 6th form colleges.

Y9/10 progress: As a consequence of the pandemic and the disruption to school examinations for this age group, I was only able to measure the impact of the intervention through student voice and teacher/external comment. Through my own personal observations, I noticed the way that the students’ confidence heightened and ways of articulating their arguments and viewpoints improved as the term progressed. Further to this, this group of students attended a number of virtual events with external speakers and charities, all of whom praised their passion, research skills and probing questions in their follow-up emails, a testament to the progress they have made over the course of the year.

Conclusion and next steps

As a result of this positive progress, I plan to continue embedding the enrichment programme into the more able strategies next academic year. I hope that in conjunction with the return of a more consistent extracurricular programme from September, I will be able to support a higher number of our more able students in raising their academic and personal aspirations and achievement.

Bibliography

EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit (Accessed 8th June 2021)

NACE resources. Available at: https://www.nace.co.uk/ (Accessed 20th May 2021)

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25 November 2021