Like most schools, St Peter’s Collegiate School, where I work, believes it is the inherent right of every student to receive the best education possible.
Part of this process is understanding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and then tailoring our teaching to ensure we bring out the best in everyone.
Logical isn’t it? Except in practice, understanding your pupils from day one is not as straightforward as it could be.
Issues with SATs
One of the key sources of information schools get about our pupils are their SAT results. However, we began having doubts that the SAT results were providing us with a true picture of an individual child’s ability.
As a secondary school, you do not have control over the test conditions and so one primary school’s results may not be consistent with another’s, where more testing practice is undertaken. This makes it difficult to compare one student against another. We also started having problems with the electronic transfer of data from primary schools. When this happened we were left with very little initial information about a child which made it difficult to assess them when they joined the school.
We decided there should be a better way, one that would provide us with comparable results from one academic year to the next so that as soon as a child started at the school, we could begin supporting them effectively. This would hopefully mean we would have less of a traditional learning “blip” when pupils make the transfer from primary to secondary.
Introducing the new school
We came up with an introductory programme for new starters. This is where all year 7 students visit the school for three days ahead of the start of the new academic year. It gets future pupils comfortable with the school and their new peers as they engage in teamwork exercises and experience a few preliminary lessons. It also provides us with an opportunity to get to know our pupils a little better too, and as part of this programme, we have introduced a cognitive abilities test (CAT) which they take on one of the days. The CAT provides us with a profile of a child’s abilities which can be used to identify their strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences.
Discovering pupils’ strengths
The head of year 7 is charged with examining the data so they can get an indication of how this will impact on lesson planning for the year ahead. She can highlight those who scored particularly high on the set of questions which test their verbal skills, for instance. If there are many learners with strong verbal abilities in one class she will look at how they can be kept engaged during lessons.
When we come across pupils with particularly low scores, we make contact with the primary school to determine whether there are missing bits of information that have played a factor, such as pastoral or learning issues that have to be taken into consideration.
Supporting all pupils
For those pupils which the test identifies as being gifted and talented, it ensures teachers are prepared from their first time in class to ensure they are handed extension activities that challenge and develop their abilities. A teacher may also consider asking them to engage the pupils as group leaders, to co-ordinate and help develop responses from their peers during a class.
Although we test all year 7 students, if we spot a particular problem in other year groups, we use the past CAT results to identify a possible cause.
We noticed a particular problem with the maths and science results of a year 8 group. By analysing the data on file, it was evident that around half the class had a good balance on verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills, but the remainder showed a very strong verbal bias.
The teachers felt that the mix of learning styles was the root of the problem. We examined each child individually to determine who were the most misplaced. By simply moving students to different groups, the problem was solved and the pupils began to progress as expected.
Parents were initially sceptical about our decision to introduce an additional testing programme at the school and we can understand why. After the pressure of the SATs, yet another test is not what they want for their child. However, they hopefully now realise that the CAT allow the school to group those with similar abilities together, instead of allowing students to languish in a set where they are not being stimulated or feel unable to engage.
We have evidence that this approach is having a long-term impact and also on a lesson-by-lesson basis. In our recent Ofsted report, the inspector highlighted the planning of a year 7 design technology class. He pointed to the teacher’s use of expert questioning skills to challenge students to think problems through.
The inspector also noted that the teacher did not simply accept an adequate answer to a question. Instead, the teacher reflected the issue back until an understanding had been reached and shared by the whole class.
The teacher would have been aware of the ability of each individual pupil and so was able to understand just what that group of students were capable of. This allowed them to adapt the lesson accordingly and get the students themselves to arrive at the right conclusion.
We are also seeing an impact on our exam results. In 2010, 71 per cent of students achieved five or more A* to C grades in their GCSEs, including English and maths. Last year, the figure had risen to 82 per cent. Also, self-review lesson observations indicate that there has been a marked increase in student engagement during lessons and improved differentiation. This in turn has had a direct impact on the number of lessons deemed “outstanding” by Ofsted.
Identifying our spatial learners
In the near future, we plan to use the tests further to determine whether we have students with strong spatial abilities. Pupils with a strong spatial ability often struggle in school as they often think most easily by using images and only afterwards convert these thoughts to words. Often teaching in school is strongly word-based – through text and verbal means – and so these learners, who can be gifted in STEM subjects, can be left behind.
A wider view
The introduction of the new programme of testing to run alongside SATs has altered the very teaching fabric of St Peter’s. Using SATs alone, we merely captured a snapshot of a child’s ability. And, as the SATs involve a degree of tutoring to the test, they did not give us an accurate picture of a pupil’s strengths and weaknesses.
Introducing the test has helped us to provide our strongest students with challenges and the weakest with support. It has helped us to shape how lessons are planned and how they should be adapted to meet different needs. More importantly, it has played a part in helping us to arm pupils with the skills they need to help them on the path to success.
Steve Walters is vice-principal at St Peter’s Collegiate School in Wolverhampton, which uses GL Assessment’s CAT.