As with any busy time for any person, my head is full of thoughts, many of which seem to be flying in different directions! I am now a week into my second year as a Head of Geography, with a set of exam results to analyse and (at least) another twelve months of developing new specifications before the new GCSE and A-Level exams in my subject. On top of this, I am busy trying to work with residents as they respond to Warrington Borough Council’s Local Plan (more on my political life at www.ryanbate.mycouncillor.org.uk). This is an attempt to try and see the wood for the trees.
The perils of analysis
Due to changing specifications, it is accepted that exams analysis needs to be a little more complicated if it is to be meaningful for future cohorts of students who will be facing different exams. It is even more important to look at groups of students, to seek out trends of underperformance. Also, despite the new specifications, it is useful to look for similar elements of old and new specifications to see if there are any pitfalls to be avoided.
All of that is of course an impartial view of process. Exams analysis, regardless of specification changes, is also about soul-searching and beating yourself up. It is about avoiding the urge to lambast certain students or classes for not trying hard enough, because you know that won’t get you anywhere, even if there is an element of truth behind the frustration.
I have spent hours – many hours – looking at data in the past week. Results by class, results by gender, results by sub-groups, results by ability. Compared to previous years, compared to similar schools, compared to national averages. Looking for correlation, looking for causation, looking for some kind of rationale, or at least one that will be acceptable.
Whilst spending time doing this exams analysis, I have not been planning, or marking, or discussing how we move the department forward. Even though I had a pretty good idea what the main reasons were for our woeful underperformance, I had to carry on analysing, partly because we have to cut results every which way imaginable, even though the same reasons applied across the board, and partly because one of my reasons is one of those ‘unspeakables’: was that a large percentage of our cohort last year did not work hard enough, in lessons or at home, and despite our efforts to change their attitude, it did not work.
Unfortunately I don’t think that reason will be accepted because there seems to be a bizarre notion, prevalent across education, that teachers can control all of the factors contributing to students’ performance. Now I don’t deny the importance of teaching in learning outcomes. Nor do I want to claim that teaching is not a key contributing factor in performance. Whilst it is accepted that there are a range of factors contributing to performance, I think it is an unacknowledged fact that whilst teachers and schools can influence many of these factors, they cannot control them completely and there are some which they cannot influence let alone control. Furthermore, where that influence fails that is not necessarily a reflection on the teacher or the school.
So whilst I see a point in analysis – looking for areas for improvement – I think it has been built into something which it cannot be. Or rather, something it cannot be unless we are allowed to acknowledge that some contributing factors were at play which we couldn’t overcome. Like performance management, exam analysis suggests we are in complete control of our students performance and, in holding this truth, educators are probably the only people who believe that they can fully manipulate teenagers en bloc.
Regardless of the poor results, I was looking forward to getting back in the classroom and trying to make my second year at the new school a better one than the last. Last year was a steep learning curve as I was studying the system and studying myself. All year I was constantly reflecting and plotting how I could do things differently. I have a substantial to-do list and I still have a set of priorities from the time of my appointment which have survived the test of time. Behind all of this however, I have been reminded in the first week back of what I hold to be a universal truth: it is all about relationships.
One of the things I really wanted to do was build great relationships, because it is something I consider to be a strength of mine and which I maybe didn’t always get right last year as I was finding my feet as a new Head of Department in a new school. To build these relationships, I had to build the right environment and also make sure lessons set the right tone. Relationships and engagement are intrinsically linked. You make it more challenging for yourself to have good relationships if lessons are either too boring or not pitched at the right level.
To this end, I took it upon myself to roll out some of my old lessons for the first topic of Year 7. I wanted to make sure learners started with a really positive experience of Geography, across the whole department. I have also dusted off the Fitbit after being watch-less for the summer (as I like to be) and am using it to help keep me on my feet, working the room, rather than succumbing to the temptation of checking e-mails or tweaking the next lesson’s slides whilst the class are doing an activity.
By having really good relationships, based around engaging lessons and high standards, this is probably the most powerful way of improving results. It is through relationships that you can influence more of those factors which determine exam outcomes. It was probably these relationships missing last year, not unsurprisingly for my own GCSE class having only picked them up at the start of Year 11. So my target for this year, for myself and my department, is to have good relationships. I believe quality learning will follow and this will lead to quality results.