Geoff Petty - How to get that safety-net bounce

Does your department have the ability to organise coffee at break times? If yes, then Geoff Petty thinks you’re ready to try to ‘catch them before they fall’.

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Hurworth School, near Darlington in County Durham, saw 38% of its pupils get five good GCSEs in 1997, but 10 years later it was 96 %. These were real GCSEs - not ‘equivalents’ and there was plenty of social and economic deprivation – not just leafy suburbs. No data fiddling either.

A near tripling of the pass-rates defies both sociology and normal teacher expectations. How on earth did they do it? No, they didn’t shoot the weaker students and bury them behind the goalposts. Nor did they spike the water with Ritalin. They improved teaching and learning to a very high standard, using a strategy called ‘assertive mentoring’ or ‘catch them before they fall’ (see Teaching Today – a practical guide by Geoff Petty, chapters 47-48).

In order to use this strategy, your team must pass the ‘coffee test’. For example, if your department has trouble providing coffee and milk at break times (including spoons), then you may need an armed coup before embarking on this approach.

Have a look at the flow diagram , and if you think ‘we do that already’ prepare

for some surprises. Most departments/colleges do something like this, but it only happens once every six weeks and the arrows can be missing. Student selfassessment is often missing too, and students are not usually off ered support and monitoring with their action plan.

Also, students can get away with failing to complete the action plan. Impressive colleges and their teachers and trainers, however, do what Hurworth School does. Take this example. Jake has already tried to grasp percentages unaided and failed.

So, he’s likely to need support. Here’s a cheap mode of support that raises students’ morale and leaves you to put your feet up. You find another student, Bracha. She is not a close friend of his, but is good at percentages and agrees to help. You should emphasise the diff erence between helping and copying at this point. But students get this so you don’t need to explain much.

You explain Bracha’s role to Jake, and the pair meet outside class time to resolve the difficulties. Jake knows that Bracha will report his progress and effort, or lack of it, back to you. You might formalise this agreement with ground rules and a process. Or, you might leave it informal and fluid. But, a week later, as agreed, Bracha reports progress. Often it’s good news, but suppose it isn’t….

In this instance, you require Jake to attend your weekly departmental workshop. Any student from any course at any level can attend this, but Jake must attend if his action plan requires it (he agreed to abide by this before enrolment).

You get weekly reports on his progress; Bracha might still be helping, by the way. Three weeks later the problem is fixed. Do you see what I mean about the arrows in the diagram (below right)? A weakness, picked up at the beginning of the course, is discussed in a one-to-one tutorial, addressed with support, progress is monitored, and support increased until the problem is fixed. Jake went twice round this cycle in three weeks.

Unlike in most colleges, the cycle in the diagram goes round once a day, week, fortnight, or month, depending on the needs of the student. Hurworth School believes that if every student is given support in proportion to their needs, then all will be successful. This is 96 % true, after all.

The support system is rather like a series of safety nets (see above right). Or like an inflatable buoyancy aid, where we keep pumping in support until the student floats. If you have been teaching for more than 25 minutes you will realise this isn’t easy to organise. It took Hurworth 10 years to go from a 38 % to a 96 % success rate. The support provided by teachers in the workshops is a brilliant investment – so that it is fully funded and properly time-tabled.

This just can’t be done in corridors with a sandwich in one hand and a coffee in the other. It’s important to recognise that this is not just a controlling, disciplinary system. There is a philosophy to it, which is: ‘if we give the help they need, every student will succeed.’ It’s formative assessment. So if you pass the coffee test, try it.