In medieval times the practice of alchemy was commonplace. Many enlightened and intelligent learners concerned themselves with transmutation of matter, in particular with attempts to convert base metals into gold. This was the stuff of dreams. These early chemists believed if they found the universal elixir they could produce gold.
As a former Strategic Adviser for Closing the Gap, for the Central South Consortium. I often feel that schools, particularly those under pressure, are searching for that single strategy or golden bullet that is going to make a difference to those learners eligible for free school meals.
I can only liken this to the medieval alchemists, looking for the elixir that will take their 'base results' and turn them into ‘attainment gold’. So what is this philosophers stone ? What works?
The simple answer is “almost everything works” as John Hattie points out in his book Visible Learning into Action “over 95% of all average effects from the (now) 1137 meta-analysis tried and tested are all indeed positive. Evidence can be found to support almost any strategy used to raise attainment.
So perhaps a more suitable question would be, “what works best?” Or an even better question still “what works best for our disadvantaged learners in our individual context?” Now this is a question that really gets to the heart of the matter. Hattie’s Visible Learning research shows that we are surrounded by success in our own system. Lucy Crehan , the author of Clever Lands , traveled to the top performing countries in the OECD's PISA tests. In search of this elixir, and what she found was that in many cases it is culture that has the greatest impact. Whats more in some of the top performing countries, the gap between those disadvantaged pupils and their peers was wider than here in the UK.
So how as school leaders do we decide where to place our emphasis ? and where are we best placed to put our resources ( which includes the Pupil Premium in England, and the Pupil envelopment Grant in Wales)? As Hattie points out the search for any elixir starts with the key notion “know thy impact.”
If school leaders can accurately evidence impact when there is success we can share this across the system, if not, the aim is to refine, adapt and change what we are doing.
I have to be honest at this point, as Strategic Adviser for over 3 years , I searched in vein for such an elixir. I have read numerous documents from various sources; worked with IPSOS MORI to commission two research projects to understand what works; created teach meets and networks to share best practice ; worked closely with Sir Alistair MacDonald, PDG Advocate in Wales to share what I had learnt. The truth is this is a complex problem that can't be boiled down to simple aspects to address . However any work based on closing the gap has to focus on:
1. Culture. As Lucy Crehan discovered the cultural elements of the school and the wider community often have the greatest impact. From the 'Tiger Mothers' of China, to the ' cross party approach' of Finland. Considering how we create a successful culture in our schools, and out communities has the greatest impact .
2. Pedagogy. The skill of the individual teachers , as teachers not as professionals who impart information or subject leaders has the greatest impact. We also have to consider how we can remove the barriers that poverty places in the way of education. It is helpful to think about closing the gap in the following manner:
1. Remove the barriers and individual support
The first level of support for any pupil entitled to free school meals should be based around removing the barriers. I am intentionally avoiding the word intervention, as it is not necessarily about intervening it is more about removing the barriers that are preventing these children achieving and in so doing levelling the playing field. If the pupil’s numeracy or literacy skills are a barrier to their learning then it is essential that this is addressed. However disadvantage may lead to children not been able to learn. Therefore this initial level should look at:
· Identification of the main barriers to learning for disadvantaged pupils;
· Explicit school level strategies to identify and support pupils entitled to free school meals through targeted funding;
· Individualised approaches to addressing these barriers to learning through for example emotional support;
· A dedicated senior leadership champion within the school;
· Forensic monitoring of the progress of all disadvantaged pupils;
· When pupil progress slows, intervention is rapidly implemented;
· Subsidising school trips and other learning resources;
2. Wider intervention and provision
Schools that are effective at closing the achievement gap develop systems, strategies and provision that will have a wider impact beyond eFSM learners. In these institutions school leaders develop systems and provision to ensure that all learners are successful. Such examples of this provision might include:
· Extended services (e.g. breakfast and after school clubs, including homework and study support) and multiagency support.
· In-school dedicated pastoral and well-being support and outreach. This goes beyond eFSM learners.
· Utilising well-being programmes such as Thrive, SEAL, Successful Lives, Achievement for All etc.
· Performance management is used to support this area of school development.
· Highly effective teaching assistants are deployed strategically and the outcomes of their support are evaluated systematically.
3. Whole school cultural development
Perhaps the ultimate elixir, for closing the achievement gap is developing a school culture and ethos where the emphasis is on the achievement of all pupils, even those that are disadvantaged by their context achieve regardless. In these schools, leaders have a clearly articulated vision and high aspirations and expectations for all learners. It is in these schools that eFSM learners will thrive, the impact of such cultural change is often evident in the schools rigorous self-evaluation process.
In these schools they often;
· Develop a positive school culture, underpinned by values and moral purpose to all pupils will achieve;
· Have effective leadership teams with ambition, common vision and high expectations of all staff and pupils;
· Demonstrate a relentless focus on high-quality teacher learning across the school;
· Ensure hundred percent buying from all staff, with all staff conveying positive and aspirational messages to disadvantaged pupils;
· “Know thy impact,” evidence is used rigorously to decide which strategies are likely to be most effective in overcoming the barriers to learning for disadvantaged pupils;
· Develop a curriculum that is engaging and relevant, giving eFSM learners the experiences and aspirations that they do not necessarily get from home.
· Ensure highly effective behaviour and attendance systems are in place.
· Encourage pupils to take personal responsibility for their own learning development, and feel empowered to do so.
Having considered all this, perhaps the real elixir to converting base results into ‘golden attainment’ is not indeed a single strategy or a one-off intervention. Instead, it is a result of courageous leadership, a clear vision and schools that are prepared to change their practice and the status quo in order to meet the needs of the most vulnerable pupils. Paradoxically if we change our systems to support the most vulnerable learners then surely the least vulnerable will excel as well. Meaning more than closing the gap we are raising attainment of all our learners for the future. That surely, is better than gold?
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