Do students have something constructive to say about their own education? Putting pupil consultation at the forefront of her research into tacking underachievement allowed Helen Lee to highlight some new areas of concern for her school.

Underachievement has been an issue in schools as long as there have been schools. As Younger and Warrington asserted as recently as 2005, ‘The underachievement of girls and boys is a complex and multi-dimensional problem.’ Numerous studies have addressed what is seen as an increasingly urgent problem. Millions of pounds have been spent by a succession of governments trying to alleviate the problem. And have any of the initiatives worked? Not according to the media who continue to obsess about failing schools and the system failing pupils.

In my school the issue of underachievement was dominated by the real and significant differences in GCSE examination data between girls and boys. Not only were the girls doing better but the boys’ performance had fallen every year since 2003 and was below the average for both the LEA and Wales nationally.

As a teacher undertaking an MEd in Educational Leadership I had to choose a dissertation topic that would allow me to contribute to the strategic development of my school, and boys’ underachievement was at the top of the development plan. But I had other reasons for addressing such a contentious issue. Firstly I wanted to make a real difference to the pupils in the school where I worked and secondly I wanted to explore a more humanist approach to school improvement, away from what Flutter and Rudduck (2004) refer to as a ‘controlling rational framework’.

In line with other schools, my school had implemented a number of initiatives to address underachievement. These included literacy strategies and Inset workshops as well as departmental target-setting and mentoring. However, the efficacy of such initiatives was unproven and the majority of the above-mentioned strategies were aimed towards KS3 pupils and boys only.

I was initially drawn to the work of the ESRC at Cambridge under the auspices of Professor Jean Rudduck, who had investigated the possible role of pupil consultation in tacking underachievement. As someone who likes to pride herself on putting pupils first, I was keen to utilise the programmes that the Cambridge team had developed; to put pupils at the forefront of their learning and give them an opportunity to take responsibility for it. Further reading demonstrated that there had been an increasing  amount of research conducted into pupils’ consultation. The idea was not new but what was different was that it was starting to be used more effectively to direct school improvement.

In addition, I had long been interested in Gardner’s 1993 theory of multiple intelligences and how this was implemented in schools in relation to specific learning styles. I and the rest of the staff had no idea if the strategies we had been trying out in lessons really worked for the pupils. The same was true of the teacher mentor scheme developed for Year 11 pupils. Did it work? Was it relevant? Finally, I was not convinced that the underachievement in my school was limited to the boys only. I wanted to challenge the popular assumption that only boys underachieve. As Epstein et al (1998) noted, ‘Are girls doing any better?’ I wanted to find out.

After much research I formulated my study aims. They were:

  • investigate the possible causes of underachievement
  • evaluate whether pupil consultation can be used as a tool to assess pupils’ perceptions of learning in respect of their learning preferences
  • evaluate whether pupil consultation can be used as a tool to address underachievement
  • evaluate the mentoring process as a tool to address underachievement
  • develop strategies from the data assimilated to address underachievement.

My study utilised semi-structured interviews followed by a questionnaire, alongside assessment of the pupils’ preferred learning styles. Twelve Year 11 pupils were chosen to participate in the study (one later dropped out). To select the pupils I first used a school-based system for identifying those who were deemed by the teaching staff to be underachieving based upon a selection of criteria such as being behind in course/class work, poor behaviour etc. From this, I utilised both CAT and YELLIS data to indicate the projected academic ability of each underachieving pupil. Using this method I was able to select 12 pupils – six girls and six boys – and within these subgroups I chose two each of low, middle and high ability.

The selection of questions for the interviews was based upon the work of MacBeath el al (2003), alongside specific questions pertaining to my study. In addition I wanted to ask about the future as the pupils concerned were soon to leave compulsory education and I wanted to know if school had been relevant to them. The interviews were transcribed verbatim and included some non-verbal elements. They were then subjected to categorical analysis where the data was first place into broad categories dependent on my research aims and literature review. From this the data was then placed into what Coffey and Atkinson (1996) refer to as super-ordinate categories, based upon the responses given by the pupils.

My initial research proposal was to repeat the interviewing process at the end of Year 11, just before the pupils went on their study leave. However, as the transcribing and coding of interviews was a time-consuming process, time I did not have, I decided that a different approach would elicit better information as well as maintaining my sanity. After researching the different questionnaire approaches (MacBeath et al, 2003; Flutter and Rudduck, 2004 and Arnot at al, 2004) on offer I opted for a simple questionnaire which both utilised small amounts of extended prose whileeliciting data specific on the questions raised by their initial interviews.

The findings of the research have to be viewed within the context of the small sample number. The main findings from the study were that:

  • all pupils wanted to learn and succeed
  • most pupils were kinaesthetic learners but were also able to effectively utilise other learning strategies. It could therefore be surmised that variety was as important as individual learning styles. Some departments were noted as being better at this than others.
  • the issue of behaviour was important to almost all pupils, irrespective of gender and affected both motivation and concentration.
  • pupils believed that they could work better at home. It was evident therefore that the working ethos of the school was in many cases not conducive to learning
  • half of the pupils did not manage difficulty effectively, indicating that they were not equipped with the skills necessary to learn independently
  • most pupils received regular feedback on their work; however, nowhere in the research did a pupil mention that they had been praised for their work
  • pupils were generally enthusiastic about the assessment strategies they had encountered
  • only two of the girls noted that they thought that school has been relevant to them and amongst the girls, a number believed that school was either only marginally relevant or not relevant at all
  • pupils were generally downbeat about the mentoring process and the scheme itself was not well implemented by the teaching staff assigned to it
  • there was a mixed response to the consultation process, with some pupils being very positive, some appearing confused, indicating how new being consulted was to them, and others being non-committal and ‘not bothered’.

Throughout the research it was apparent that unless otherwise specified there were no apparent gender differences between the pupils’ answers. Even the most truculent of pupils were concerned about the behaviour of others in school, aptly demonstrating that consultation brings to the fore hidden concerns; concerns which may otherwise be unseen or ignored possibly due in part to the challenging behaviour of the very pupils expressing the view.

A major finding from the research was that the pupils seemed to lack strategies for learning independently and tackling difficulty effectively. These so-called study skills must be taught if pupils are to have full access to the information presented to them. It could be concluded that emphasis on obtaining the best examination grades has not left time for the teaching and studying of these skills. Therefore, the greatest improvement in attainment might be seen if such skills were taught to pupils who have been identified as being underachievers and poorly motivated.

The fact that the girls generally had not found school relevant to them was disturbing and highlights the dangers of addressing the populist notion of underachievement in isolation from that of girls.

This study was a vehicle for my school to continue to address underachievement alongside the school development plan and in conjunction with input from other stakeholders – the teaching staff, governors the LEA, parents and the wider community. From this study I was able to highlight some areas of concern which could be become part of a strategic view to address underachievement:

  • Audit of the teaching, learning and assessment styles utilised by individual departments.
  • Evaluation of the use of behavioural sanctions in lessons.
  • Better sharing of good practice between departments.
  • Introduction of course of study skills for all pupils.
  • Complete overview of mentoring, including training for prospective mentors.
  • Pupil consultation on appropriate methods of target-setting and implementation of such methods.
  • Pupil consultation on the relevancy of curricula to girls’ career aspirations.
  • Teacher consultation on school improvement initiatives.

Despite the study initially being directed towards boys’ underachievement, it illuminated questions relevant to both sexes. As a teacher I felt heartened by some of the findings and shocked by others. I was surprised by the amount of information I had gleaned in such a relatively short research project and I fell more affirmed in my own teaching philosophy; that a less dialogic and more holistic approach to learning was needed. As I stated in the final paragraph of my dissertation:

From this study it is evident that pupils do have constructive things to say. Teachers therefore need to look beyond the governmental initiatives and focus on the needs and interests of the pupils, who no doubt attracted them to such a worthwhile career in the first place. If decades of reforms have not addressed the problem of underachievement maybe it is time for students to join in the debate and succeed where others have failed.

Editor’s comment

Over recent decades there have been a number of initiatives designed to address low achievement or low attainment. As secretary of state, Keith Joseph was extremely worried about the ‘bottom 40%’. Indeed, he went so far as to say that he would not rest until every child was above average!

He seemed to be unaware that the school and public examination systems were designed to produce winners and losers. Subsequently we have had low-attaining pupils’ projects, various records of achievement schemes, TVEI and a host of small and large scale projects and initiatives. Often such efforts wait until things are too late before throwing money at the ‘problem’. Almost always the common denominator in the evaluations has something to say about ‘engaging’ with pupils. And, based on my own participation in such projects, I would say that simply listening to young people is key to an education that interests them.

References

  • Arnot, M, McIntyre, D, Pedder, D and Reay, D (2004) Consultation in the Classroom, Cambridge: Pearson.
  • Coffey, A and Atkinson, P (1996) Making sense of Qualitative Data Analysis: Complementary Strategies, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Epstein, D, Elwood, J, Hey, V and Maw, H (eds) (1998) Failing Boys? Issues in Gender and Achievement, Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Flutter, J and Rudduck, J (2004) Consulting Pupils, London: Routledge-Falmer. Gardner, H (1993) Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, New York: Basic Books.
  • MacBeath, J, Demetriou, H, Rudduck, J and Myers, K (2003) Consulting Pupils: A Toolkit for Teachers, Cambridge: Pearson Publishing.
  • Younger, M and Warrington, M (2005) Raising Boys’ Achievement [online], DfES, available at www.dfes.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RR636.pdf [Accessed 6th April 2006].
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