Square pegs, round holes – Every child deserves success

A Leadership Legacy Project think-piece by Lucy Faux, Manchester Enterprise Academy

As I was sat in the introductory speech for the SSAT Leadership project, I found that a fire relit inside me. This tends to happen every time I have a training course or a conference day, or any day away from the hustle and bustle of being a teacher. I started to remember the reasons that I originally became a teacher and started to think where I could steer my career.

I became a teacher after a career of support work with young and adult offenders. I found the majority of people that I was supporting had no qualifications, or very little education. More than three in five (62%) of people entering prison were assessed as having a reading age of 11 or lower (DFE, 2018)—over three times higher than in the general adult population (15%), (Department for Business Education and Skills, 2012). It was clear from looking at their records that reoffending was a way of life for many people that felt like they had no better option. ‘Engagement with education can significantly reduce reoffending. The proven one-year re-offending rate is 34% for prisoner learners, compared to 43% for people who don’t engage in any form of learning activity.’ (Ministry of Justice and Department of Education, 2017).

For me, education was the logical next career move, as one of the key factors in steering a person’s life away from crime and towards success. So here I am, in my fifth year as a teacher of maths in a secondary school in an area that has about 7000 children living in poverty. As my teaching career progressed, I naturally moulded into the teacher that works well with the SEN kids and the ‘naughty kids’, finding myself banging the drum for the vulnerable learners and becoming annoyed by the staff members who dismissed their needs as an inconvenience rather than a moral duty.

I became increasingly aware of how the UK education system is designed to disadvantage those from a poorer demographic, forcing all pupils into a system that uses standardised tests to compare pupils and doesn’t adjust for pupil background.

‘The British education system has been described as ‘learning to labour’ for good reason. It is the poorest who are still most clearly damaged by elitism, by the shame that comes with being told that their ability borders on illiteracy, that there is something wrong with them because of who they are, that they are poor because they have inadequate ability to be anything else’, (Dorling, n.d.).

Why are we forcing all pupils within a mainstream setting to sit GCSEs in maths and English? Logically we want all pupils to succeed in life and have a chance of gaining work or college places which require GCSE pass grades. However, some pupils in lower attaining sets struggle to access the same qualifications as the majority. They receive regular reminders that they are not measuring up to society and are likely to struggle in life. How demoralising it must be for a low attaining pupil to gain no qualifications having made it through five years of education? The GCSE maths paper is just not accessible for these pupils. I became increasingly frustrated by pupils leaving my school achieving nothing in maths.

There had to be another way for these pupils to succeed and gain confidence. Through research and support from my head of department I became aware of different qualifications that could be achieved in maths. I quickly set up an exam series for my bottom set year 11 class in maths with the help of the school exams officer. I chose Pearson entry level exam, and eventually the same year 11 set sat three exam series and every pupil left school with a maths qualification. The confidence of my class flourished and since the papers had the same layout as the GCSE paper they would eventually sit, their fear of the final GCSEs dropped and their belief in themselves increased. They had success. It might be at a lower level, but they had success. Square pegs, square holes.

Since then, I have become lead on running the entry level exam for pupils who are low attaining, and for those who may not achieve a GCSE for other reasons.

My School has a high number of pupils in receipt of pupil premium and/or with SEND. Some of our pupils display challenging behaviour. There has been an internal alternative group of pupils for the past few years, attended by some of the students presenting the most challenging behaviour in the school. The group was set up in response to a need to support pupils that were on the brink of permanent exclusion. Not surprisingly, this group includes a high proportion of pupil premium students, is almost 100% SEND, with many students having EHCPs.

As of July 2020, there were five groups, two year 9, two year 8 and one year 7. The groups were successful in terms of keeping the pupils from being excluded, but there was much work to be done to improve. As part of the committee tasked we quality assuring the provision, I recognised the following issues:

  1. Pupils didn’t have an area or classroom that belonged to them, therefore when transitioning between classrooms they would truant.
  2. There were 5 x hour-long lessons; pupils did not find these manageable.
  3. Timetabling the pupils’ classes was clearly scheduled in at the end, as there were mixed teachers for classes.
  4. Teachers weren’t given an option to teach these classes, and therefore built poor relationships with the pupils, sometimes making it clear to the pupils that they didn’t want to be there.
  5. Teachers often ‘dumbed’ down the curriculum for the pupils, assuming the pupils were low attaining, meaning the pupils made little progress, and behaved poorly.

All of the above indicate again how pupils can be set up to fail. Square pegs, round holes. As part of the working party, we set out to address the above issues:

  1. A new part of the school was sectioned off and individual classrooms were designed for each year group.
  2. The classes were trimmed down to one per year, with a maximum of six in each class. The other pupils were supported back into mainstream and are currently doing very well.
  3. The school day was broken down into six 40-minute lessons, with two form periods. One form period was at the end of the day when pupils are encouraged to catch up on work they may have missed and time for restorative conversations with staff.
  4. There were four core teachers employed to teach maths, English, science and humanities.
  5. Mainstream teachers were picked very carefully to populate the pupils’ option subjects.
  6. The curriculum was designed around the rest of the school, in fact whenever possible, students are taught the higher specification. Tests are taken in line with the rest of the school and homework is given out in the same way. Expectations of the pupils remains high.

Square pegs. Square holes.

I was appointed the maths teacher and lead of STEM. I have also started my Senco qualification at university, encompassing both of my current passions. My days are difficult, and I do come across some challenging behaviour, but the rewards far outweigh the difficulties.


  1. Pupils are starting to learn (still more to be done) to take pride in their classrooms. The pupils are escorted out of the area when needed, and therefore there is almost zero truancy.
  2. The smaller class sizes, with the pupils that need the support means we can focus our attentions. The pupils that were able to go back into mainstream were also given the opportunity to succeed.
  3. The shorter lessons work brilliantly. The lesson time is perfect, and manageable by most of the pupils. From a curriculum point of view, there is plenty of time to cover what is needed within the time. The form time at the end of the day is perfect for catching up with work and sanctions if necessary. It is also the perfect opportunity for staff and pupils to build good working relationships.
  4. The staff team within AP remains consistent and therefore we work as a team well to support each other. The pupils know what they are getting as they have and see us every day. We have time to build strong working relationships, and most importantly the kids know we want to be there. Everyone knows consistency and stability for every child is key, and especially more so those with SEMH needs.
  5. Pupils are accessing the curriculum like the rest of the UK. And doing well on top of that. Pupils are making significant progress and producing work of an incredible standard.

Square pegs. Square holes.

“I have been told all my life that I am naughty. I didn’t enjoy primary school, they didn’t help me at all. I was constantly hearing negative things. I was in an hour a day at primary.”

A comment from a pupil in my form who for me has been the biggest success story. This pupil now completes full days and all lessons. She has 100% attendance, showing how much she wants to be here. She can struggle to accept positive comments because of all the negatives she was used to. When I first met her, she told me where to go, and occasionally she still will. She never accepted help or allowed you to sit and go through errors. She may still get angry or upset or shut down when she has something wrong, but sometimes, she accepts and corrects her work. And when she does, I know it’s all worth the wait.


Attewell, P. and Newman, K., 2010. Growing Gaps. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dorling, D., n.d. Injustice (Revised Edition).
Department for Education (2018) FE Data Library—OLASS English and maths assessments: participation 2017/18, London: SFA 125
Figure 1.1, Department for Business Innovation and Skills (2012) The 2011 Skills for Life Survey: A Survey of Literacy, Numeracy and ICT Levels in England, London: BIS
Ministry of Justice and Department for Education (2017) Exploring the outcomes of prisoner learners: analysis of linked offender records from the Police National Computer and Individualised Learner Records, London: Ministry of Justice
On the fringes: preventing exclusions in schools, through inclusive, child centred, needs based practice, Jackie Ward

SSAT Members: Nominations for the next cohort of the Leadership Legacy Project are now open. Find out more.

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