A Diagnostic Approach for our Lower Attainers

People who work in challenging secondary schools will be familiar with students arriving in Y7 significantly below expected standards for their age.  I remember one year at Burlington Danes when 85% of our new recruits were reading below the expected standard for their age.  In my current role across a network of schools, we’re trying to be more forensic in what we do to enable these students to make up the ground they’ve lost on their peers.  We’re all too aware of the grim national picture, in which progress for our lower attainers tends to be slower than our higher attainers, exacerbating the achievement gap that already exists when students enter secondary school.

It’s probably fair to say that ‘more of the same’ – i.e. a standard school curriculum – won’t enable low attainers to catch up (though this is far preferable to putting these students on a more ‘accessible’ vocational-heavy pathway) and that we need to understand the barriers that have prevented these students from gaining secure outcomes at primary school.  We can probably agree that the inability to read fluently is a critical barrier.  I’ve been inspired recently by the Michaela approach to tackling illiteracy, as pioneered by Katie Ashford and described here.

When speaking with Katie I am struck by her practical approach to what can seem like an intractable problem.  She tests students for reading age on entry and then separates those reading below their chronological age between those who are simply slower readers (solution = make sure they read more in order to gain fluency), and those who have not yet figured out how to read securely.  Those in this latter group are withdrawn from some lessons and begin the Ruth Miskin Fresh Start phonics programme until they’ve caught up.

Katie would probably call me a softie here, but I wonder if a further barrier for some of our lowest attainers might be in their non-cognitive skills, such as concentration and self-control.  In an ideal world, these non-cognitive skills would be cultivated at home, so schools could focus on formal education.  In reality, perhaps we can explore ways of re-calibrating these non-cognitive skills, much the same as the Fresh Start programme strips literacy back to its phonic foundations.

I’ve been excited recently by three Freakonomics podcasts which offer some hope for re-setting students’ attitudes.  This podcast suggests that cognitive behavioural therapy can improve self-regulation in our most challenging students, a point developed in the sequel here, in which CBT is used by Hampshire Police with men convicted of domestic violence.  Finally, this episode ‘Does Early Education Come Way Too Late?’ looks at the limits of schools’ impact on students with poor non-cognitive skills.

In a week in which Ofsted acknowledged that it’s easier to get a better rating with brighter students, in a month in which we’ve moved a step closer towards an academic curriculum for all (90% EBacc), and in a year in which the progress of all of our students will show up in performance tables (Progress 8), it’s vital that we have an honest and evidence-informed dialogue about the barriers facing our lowest attainers.  I’m convinced that we can enable all of our students to leave secondary school with a decent education (comparable outcomes notwithstanding!) but I’m also convinced that some of the barriers that have prevented progress at primary need to be diagnosed and tackled head-on at secondary, rather than wished away.

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