Monday, 21 August 2017

How to teach (the 'disadvantaged'...)

I saw an article on The Times via Twitter the other day/week (I've lost track of time!) titled "Disadvantaged pupils fall behind despite funding". My initial response was 'You mean, there's a problem that can't be solved by just throwing money at it, and your response is that the funding is the issue?!'. My more thoughtful response was 'The issues that disadvantaged pupils suffer are not due to their schooling, but down to society. The (approximate) 14% of their time they spend in schools is not the deciding factor on their disadvantage and throwing money at that time in schools won't change that.'

I decided to blog about this due to the size of our 'disadvantaged' cohort, the discussions that I've been a part of around the 'disadvantaged' and my record with classes over the last 3 years, as well as a few conversations I've had throughout this year.

I work in a school where approximately 50% of our students are 'disadvantaged'. We're compared to schools whose 'disadvantaged' cohort isn't almost 500, but is 5 or 15, and we're expected to churn out the same results as them with a drastically different intake (but that's a different issue altogether, isn't it?!).
For what it's worth, our school results are approximately 50% 5 A*-C incl. English and Maths and whilst I'm aware that this isn't good enough, it's a bloody good effort given our circumstances.

In 2013-14 I taught our set 2 of 8, with 91.7% of the students in my class making 3 levels of progress. (45.8% 4LOP)
In 2014-15 I taught our set 5, with 80% of my students making 3LOP. (10% 4LOP)
In 2015-16 I taught our set 1, with 93.1% of my students making 3LOP. (65.5% 4LOP)

In 2015, "36.5% of pupils classified as disadvantaged received five good passes including English and maths, compared with 64% of all other pupils", so we're looking at a 27.5% gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students.

In 2013-14 I taught our set 2 of 8, with 100% of the 'disadvantaged' students in my class making 3 levels of progress. (80% 4LOP)
In 2014-15 I taught our set 5, with 80% of my 'disadvantaged' students making 3LOP. (20% 4LOP)
In 2015-16 I taught our set 1, with 87.5% of my 'disadvantaged' students making 3LOP. (50% 4LOP)

Whilst out on interview this year, I was told that the figures for the 'disadvantaged' students in my classes are excellent and challenge 'non-disadvantaged' figures in schools up and down the country. I was also asked 'What do you do for your disadvantaged students that makes a difference?'.

I couldn't say - not because these are my methods and secrets, but because I didn't know. I've thought long and hard. I still don't know. I teach them, I guess.

'What do you do for your disadvantaged students that makes a difference?'

It's tough to answer that when your 'disadvantaged' cohort for the school is 50% of your students, and not just 5 kids in a year group who you can identify what you do differently for them. I've sat through training on 'narrowing the gap', where the question is 'what can you do differently for your disadvantaged students?' and I've come to the conclusion that there are no definitive answers. It's a question that has been asked, multiple times, without giving any answers. I've not come across one person, training session, blog or book that can tell me (or anyone else in the same situation) how to narrow the gap when 50% of your cohort/class is 'disadvantaged'.

I came to the conclusion that the only option you have (with 'disadvantaged' and 'non-disadvantaged' students) is to give them everything you've got. Teach them like their lives (and futures) depend on it. If you're doing it for 'disadvantaged' Doris, why aren't you doing it for 'non-disadvantaged' Nicky?

With that in mind, here's what I do with/for my GCSE classes:
  • Get them organised from day one. 'These are your exam dates, write them in your journal'. First mocks, second mocks, exams. 'Who needs a revision guide?' Schools can buy revision guides from CGP for about £3 a pop. Pass these savings on to your students - send a letter to parents offering them revision guides and collect the money before ordering. Have their revision night organised from day one. 'On Wednesdays, we have revision. Be there!'.
  • Challenge them from day one. 'Here's your target: 20 A and A* grades. I don't care who, just make it happen!'. It turned out to be 18, but would've been 23 without an increase in the A/B boundary.
  • Offer them help from day one. 'This is work. This is my job. If you need help, before, during or after school, come to my classroom. Struggling on an evening, weekend or holiday? Send me an e-mail. My job is to help you get the grade you want, so ask for help.'
  • Have routines. No - not, Alan gives out the books and Betty gives out the textbooks. Have routines, which give children the opportunity to consolidate learning and maximise progress. I have work on the board at the beginning of EVERY lesson. I give them about 15 minutes of my 100-minute lesson to recap a few of the things we've done a few weeks ago - they did in lesson, they did it for homework and now they're doing it again.
  • Fill in their gaps. It's tough when you have no data. You just start with the scheme of learning and hope it all goes well. But once you have data, use it. 'You did an assessment last Friday and I can see that as a class we can't do X, Y and Z. We're going off-menu and we're doing that again. I need you to be able to do that. We'll do it 5 times if we need to!'. There is no point trying to work out the surface area of a cone if your class is not comfortable calculating the area of a circle, or using pi.
  • Help them to fill in their gaps. Use a QLA. I don't care if you don't like completing them, your students can get more from them that you know. After every assessment give them a printout of their scores pointing them to a video (Mathswatch, Hegartymaths, Corbettmaths) that they can watch with some work they can do. 'The things in red and yellow - these are the things you couldn't do. It might be an easy fix, it might take longer. This is yor revision list from now.' In 2013-14, a girl got a C in her November mock. Totally disheartened. Her printout showed her she lost 10 marks on solving equations, having missed out by 8 marks. Fixed that, carried on, and got an A.
  • Point out their mistakes. Your students make too many of them. Even your best ones. They think 10-1 is 8 on their calculator paper. Highlight 'silly mistake marks' (marks they should definitely have scored) on their mocks, or have them do it themselves when you run through it. Add them all up and add it to their score. Compare it to the grade boundaries. 'This is the grade you would have - should have got - if you cared a little more, checked your work and didn't waste your time in your exam.' One student was 1 mark off an A* in their March mock, and scored 4/5 on an AQA best value question, working out the prices perfectly but writing the wrong bike as his conclusion for the cheapest - that's an A, not an A*.
  • Point out their improvements. If, between mock 1 and mock 2 hardworking Helen or silly Sean improve by a grade, shout about it. Challenge them to do it again.
  • Give them choices. I usually give them the option of doing one last mock at the beginning of May, in class, or to continue with normal lessons. They choose the last mock (this is how much they value the individual feedback and direction that completing the QLA offers them).
  • Count down. Have a countdown to their GCSE exams. Number of days, number of school days, number of maths lessons. Show them that it's crunch time. Remind them that they need to be doing - now more than ever.
Why would you only do some of these things for some of your students?! To use a phrase I heard a few years ago, your work should be 'a relentless pursuit of excellence'. Not for some of your students, but for all of them - 'disadvantaged' or not.