Two contradictory truths


Teenagers living in areas of concentrated poverty often face enormous barriers to successful, engaging learning. The same students however are no more incapable of achieving these ends as any others, says Alex Wood.

In my recent blog, I cautioned against assuming that attainment statistics are the best measure of educational success. Attainment statistics are questionable and can be manipulated. I also argued that, leaving aside dishonest, unethical means of improving the statistics, attainment was best enhanced by curricular relevance and high quality teaching.

These are the two big principles: get the curricular content right and raise the quality of learning and teaching.

I also suggested that if the poverty of expectation in areas of sustained poverty is not overcome, schools in such areas will tip into recurring failure. No schools should exclusively serve such areas. Nor should they be further robbed of their best internal role-models by parental choice.

Even if we achieve these difficult curricular, pedagogical and political targets, we have a challenge: how do we create warm and mutually respectful relationships, but relationships geared to an expectation, among teachers and learners, of high quality, successful learning and high attainment? How do we engage youngsters, many with little family history of educational success and many of whose circumstances seem to predispose them to failure, to make the commitments necessary to achieve?

Achieving high quality teaching as the norm will help but we also require to set targets. We cannot raise aspirations unless we indicate the heights to which we expect them to be raised.

We need however to move from global targets to individual and genuinely negotiated targets. It is counter-productive for local authorities to set arbitrary school attainment targets and for school management to set parallel targets for each subject area.

Targets must be devolved to individual classes and individual students. The support needs to be there for these students to know how they can make the gains necessary. Parents need to be pulled into that process to achieve the very best possible for their youngsters.

If however this is to be more than merely a tactic to boost the number of top-level qualifications, we need to do one other thing. We need to apply this approach to the very poorest attaining youngsters as well as the most academic. That is far from the norm. Every headlined statistic is currently at the top end of the attainment spectrum: five-plus Highers, five-plus Standard Grades at Credit or Intermediate 2.

The key targets should be aiming at improvement, school by school, department by department and among individual learners – not on the pursuit of notional norms.

To pull learners and teachers meaningfully into this process, we need several mind-set changes.

Teachers must appreciate two almost contradictory truths. Teenagers living in areas of concentrated poverty often face enormous barriers to successful, engaging learning. The same students however are no more incapable of achieving these ends as any others.

The strategies must be more imaginative, the teaching of the very highest standard, and the support must be intensive: to complete incomplete skill-sets, to have realistic but achievable personal targets, and to be provided with the means of making the leap to success.

Such youngsters must relate closely to one or two trusted individuals who mentor, support and advise them. They require teachers who put relationships at the top of the agenda.

Again it’s back to basics: nothing, including the raising of attainment, occurs successfully in schools without warm, mutually respectful relationships. That should be the first criterion when we appoint teachers and school leaders: can they establish these relationships and build that ethos of high expectations?

Raising attainment is about powerful learning and teaching: the statistics should flow from that rather than the learning and teaching flowing from the stats.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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