At the start of the year, I found myself in the unenviable position of overseeing progress in English for our KS3 students. As well as careful tracking of each student, I also meet fortnightly with other members of the unfortunately named ‘R.A.T’ (Raising Attainment Team), to discuss the progress of our students at KS3. There’s only 4 of us in this meeting. We’re a small team and, thankfully, tend to avoid too much scrutiny from the powers that be – our bigger, uglier brothers in the KS4 team manage to soak up the attention. But, we meet nonetheless, discussing how to secure the best progress for our budding scholars, before the pressure cooker KS4.
One of the key focuses for us is how we will ‘intervene’ to help ensure as many students as possible fulfill their potential. I was immediately quite nervous at the thought of intervention, not least because the word causes my head to drift uncomfortably between a bunch of military metaphors, and the scene in Trainspotting where Renton is locked in his bedroom. I’m also wary of the amount of intervention schemes that are introduced quickly without adequate thought, and then seem to disappear just as quickly. There’s also a huge array of questions to consider. Why interevene? With who? How, and for how long? What are the risks? How do we measure success? Should it be painful? My hope for writing this post is threefold:
- It will force me to think through these questions, as I attempt to explain the process to an audience.
- Others can offer a critique of my intervention model as it stands.
- Someone might suggest a better way.
Designing the intervention
After a few initial discussions with the team, it was clear that there were endless possibilities. We decided to focus on our year 9 cohort to narrow things down a little, and shared the data we had for every student in the year. This made it quite easy to compare the students based on their performance in English, Maths and Science. I spent a bit of time with the data and managed to identify a group of year 9 students who were under performing in English, but seemed to be doing fairly well in Maths and Science. I felt this was important for two reasons. Firstly, we agreed that students underachieving in all three areas probably needed additional support and mentoring from the pastoral team and SLT. There were complex issues with behaviour, attendance and emotional development that required greater attention than we were able to give. Secondly, this group were use to academic success. They were good learners, but behind where they might be in English. I didn’t want the students I worked with to feel they were being grouped because they were ‘bad’ at English. In fact, many students I work with are very good at English, but had not made very much progress in year 7 and 8.
After selecting the group of students, I spoke to the year 9 English teachers during one of our department meetings. We discussed the students on my list, and all agreed they could do with some support, and would be receptive to the idea. I suggested a ‘masterclass’ session – one after school session, every week, focusing on the area of most need. With this as the backbone, we soon managed to come up with a plan:
- Each target student would meet with their English teacher once a term for a short mentoring meeting to discuss progress in English and encourage reflection. With class shares, no member of staff has more than about 5 students to meet with so this seemed manageable.
- The meetings would be recorded, with contact home, and agreed targets to be recorded and referred to in English lessons
- Parents would be contacted via a letter with a schedule of the masterclass sessions, inviting their son / daughter’s attendance.
- Parents would be invited to attend.
- The year 9 pastoral team could support with attendance.
- A loyalty card would be sent home to parents, with small financial incentives for students who attend regularly (Waterstone’s / Amazon vouchers in £5 increments for every 6 sessions attendance).
- The area of most need (drum-roll please) was sentence structure and punctuation.
After writing the schedule, printing the loyalty cards and sending home the letters, there wasn’t much left to do but wait. I promoted the sessions over email to year 9 tutors and was happy with the positive responses. The head of year has been fantastic in speaking to parents and cajoling students to attend. I ordered some small, cheap stamps from ebay to stamp the students loyalty cards with.
I also delivered an assembly to year 9 students about securing progress in English. Although this was delivered to the whole year, I felt it was a useful opportunity for those I don’t teach to see who I was, before I started sending letters to their parents.
The final preparation was a hasty trip to Sainsbury’s just before closing, to buy some plastic cups, some drinks and a few biscuits. The idea of rewarding students with unhealthy snacks doesn’t sit easily with me, but for the masterclass sessions I relented. To be frank, I was so concerned that no-one would attend, or that those who attended would never come back, that I was willing to sacrifice my principles on this one occasion.
Delivering the intervention
For the past four weeks, including today, I have delivered a masterclass session to between 16-20 year 9 students.
Although school finishes at 15:00, the sessions run between 15:15-16:00. This gives us ten minutes to have a drink, a biscuit and for me to ask the students about their English lessons on that day. It also helps start the sessions on a positive, friendly note. We spend around 10-15 minutes going over material from the week(s) before, around 20 minutes practising new material, then 5 minutes making the link between the masterclass sessions and what they are doing in English that week.Topics studied so far:
- Subjects and verbs, parts of speech.
- Using simple sentences effectively in descriptive writing
- Adverbs and prepositions
- Using adverbial phrases and prepositional phrases in descriptive writing
We will move on to complex sentences, and subordinating connectives.
As well as running the sessions, I send a list of attendees to the tutor team and year 9 heads of year every week, so that the students attending receive credit where it’s due.
At first, the students attending were a little negative. Although the sessions were never billed as compulsory, there were clearly students who were not particularly thrilled to be there. But it is an extra lesson on a Monday, and it’s amazing what a chocolate biscuit and a glass of coke will do (diet coke, I should add).
It’s taken quite a bit of time to break the myth that the students attending the masterclass, in their words “are the worst at English in the year.” I’ve clung on to the term ‘masterclass’ for dear life, instead of ‘catch up’ or ‘intervention’ to try and quell this storm. I’ve also made the work challenging, which seems to alleviate the issue of the students feeling they are somehow failing in the subject.
They enjoy learning grammar! I was concerned that a session on subjects and verbs might put students off attending, but amazingly they seem to relish it. I use post it notes to get feedback on each session, a simple comment about content, pace and difficulty, and even those who feel the topics are familiar have found it valuable to revisit these areas.
Attendance is good. I invited 28 students, and have never has less than 16. In our school’s context, and given what I know about previous ‘compulsory’ interventions, this is a pretty good return. As of today, I’ve even had a couple of students who’ve requested to attend, despite not being in the group first identified. This can only be a good thing.
Whilst I feel that the sessions are going swimmingly, I’m well aware that my involvement makes me a pretty poor judge of their efficacy. But eventually, I’ll need to evaluate this intervention, with the hope that it is successful enough to recreate next year. Attendance is good, but is it impacting on their progress in English? I think time will tell, and a mixture of teacher feedback, summative assessments and, dare I say it, student voice will help me judge the overall outcome.
In the mean time, if you have any criticisms or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to comment. This is an experiment, and one I hope to learn from.