Why We Need To Think Long-Term About Student Engagement

Author: Jonny Kay

Category Teacher Toolkit, School Leadership

The data looks good, the future doesn’t

While writing this blog for Pupil Progress on behaviour management strategies, I started to reflect on student behaviour more generally.

A lot of this reflection was spent asking one question:

How is it that so many students – from so many different backgrounds –have the same apathy for English and Maths?

With news of the controversial (as I am contractually obliged to call it) Outwood Grange Academy Trust plan for holding pupils back a year if they break school rules, I think I might have my answer.

We’re all aware of the Government’s continued Pyrrhic data war on teachers, and the effect this has on lower ability students but what about its effect after KS4? What effect does ‘flattening the grass’, exclusion, or isolation have on the most vulnerable students?

My conclusion is that it snuffs out any hope of a lifelong love of learning as well as setting us up for a generation of students we are utterly unprepared for: the children of the isolated, the excluded, and the flattened grasses.

The impact of our fixation with student performance

With a fixation on delivering results and accountability, it appears that teachers are being forced to brush aside the bottom 10-30% of students, and make sure they hit Government-set floor targets at all costs.

What’s worse, this doesn’t seem to be an issue which is being solved any time soon.

With cuts to art funding, teaching, and resources, students have little choice come ‘options time.’ They can be totally switched off by education when they get to Year 9 (or younger depending on their experiences at SATS, with ‘booster days’ becoming more prevalent during holidays and weekends). The result of this is that the UK has the lowest literacy rate for 16-19 year olds in the developed world.

So, what’s the solution?

How do we help these students? Well, I’m not advocating watering down discipline or differentiating behaviour rules. The (again, contractually obliged to use this word) controversial Michaela Community School in London has shown that the strictest behaviour policy can work as long as it’s complemented with an unshakeable school ethos, genuine belief in school culture, and clear communication. Michaela make no apologies for this and have received many plaudits as a result.

Having said that, allow me to slightly paraphrase Dylan Wiliam’s famous quote: “Everything works somewhere, but nothing works everywhere.” In other words – what if that doesn’t work? My answer is to properly fund arts, sports and extra-curricular provision.

Fund the things which have been savagely cut over the past 10 years. Fund sports teams, music, art, day visits, residential trips, high quality work experience. Fund collaboration with local FE, Sixth Forms and Universities to engage and help parents into adult education or even (crazy, I know) learn for enjoyment.

Staff this with external experts and current staff (and pay them for it, properly) and build proper relationships with students and teachers – not those based around homework, detentions, sanctions, isolation booths, exclusions, and negativity.

Schools should never be viewed by any parent as difficult to work with, or as singling students out, and should instead be seen as community hubs. This is something which has massively been lost over the last 25 years and we need to amend this as soon as possible. Only then will we truly start to build relationships with communities and parents who currently refuse to engage with schools and colleges. More often than not, it is those parents who can make the real difference anyway. If we can start to connect with them, we’ll suffer less friction when trying to help students reach their potential.

As I’m typing this I know it sounds like a beautiful educational utopia and some will think it can never be achieved. Or they’ll ask: “How will we pay for this?” To which my answer is that we’ll pay for it because education will start to work for everyone, giving opportunities to those who have been utterly turned off by over a decade of assessment and data and “You need to work on Paper 1 Question 3” by the age of 16. We’ll pay for it because in a generation, after reflecting on their own experiences, these students will support their own children and the teachers and leaders at the school they attend.

The money will come from fewer exclusions, less paperwork from failed managed moves, fewer support staff wasted in isolation rooms, fewer SLT meetings, less exhausted teachers, and more engaged students who enjoy lessons as a result. It will take a generation, but it will work

More effective education leads to less crime, less prison time served, higher employment figures and workers earning higher wages. In other words, in a generation, greater funding for sport and the arts pays for itself.

To boil this idea down to its nucleus: when education ‘fails’, we shouldn’t abandon it. We should try more diverse education.

A utopian dream indeed.

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Jonny Kay is Head of English and Maths at Hartlepool College of Further Education.

He has previously worked as an English Teacher and Head of Department in KS3/4 and tweets @jonnykayteacher.

He also regularly blogs at www.thereflectiveteacher.co.uk