How can form tutors can raise achievement for all pupils and support the gifted and talented? Aim Higher coordinator Martin Ransley reports

Reluctant heroes
For me, to be a form tutor is the best job in the school and, when done well, lays the foundation for a student’s achievements throughout their secondary school life and can raise achievement significantly for all students.

Through consistency, good partnerships with parents and, above all, careful use of tutor time, my last tutor group achieved 10% more A*-Cs than any other group in the year.

That first meeting
Usually this happens early in July at the new intake evening. Here it is important to reassure parents that their child will be your number one concern.

I take the opportunity to form a relationship with the parent straight away. Some parents may have bad memories of school, so I use this opportunity to effect change, albeit a small one: formality creates barriers, barriers breed fear; formality does not create respect.

What is tutor time for?
Tutor time is to prepare students for the day ahead, give notices and, of course, registration. I also believe is to wake up students and get them thinking; it is time for serious fun. I use David Wells’ excellent brainteasers: G&T students particularly appreciate the challenge and these can be easily differentiated for them. For example, more able mathematicians may struggle with the ‘wordy’ brainteasers; while able writers may find the ‘numbers’ bit more challenging. Students can work individually or in small groups.

On the first day, I always start in the same way with the same question, ‘What are you here for?’

Even the more able students may be puzzled because they’ve never been asked this question before. Usually there is silence, so I say, ‘You’re in a classroom…’

‘Ah, yes,’ says one of them (with their hand up of course), ‘to learn!’ This is only part of the answer but it’s worth spending some time on here, as lots of teachers believe that learning is the end product not part of the process. I take the opportunity to discuss how they are partners in their own learning and, in partnership with their colleagues and staff, responsible for it.

In one classroom, I’ve seen emblazoned above the whiteboard, ‘Listening is learning’. How many times have you listened and not heard?

Another is, ‘Learning is doing’ but doing what? It is said that when Einstein came up with his theory of relativity he was lying on his back thinking of clouds crossing the sky.

So what was he doing? Many teachers will tell you that what they mean is that the children should be doing some sort of kinaesthetic activity and thereby learn as they are doing. Who has made a paper aeroplane and understands the principles of flight? By now you should have teased out of them that they are here for an education, but what is it? That is the next question.

‘What is education?’ What does it look and feel like to be educated? Probably students have never been asked this question before or even thought about it. Bertrand Russell’s definition is, ‘Learning to think for yourself under the guidance of a tutor.’

Finally, I give each student a piece of paper and play ‘Expectations’ with them. I ask them to write down in two or three sentences what they expect to achieve in the next five years and what they would like to become in the future. They then fold the piece of paper, with their name on and place it in an A4 envelope, which I pass round. I seal it and write ‘Expectations’ on the front and tell them that we will open it together in five years’ time. The purpose of this exercise is for them to think about themselves and focus on the future. Too often with able and G&T students we emphasise academic achievement not their dreams and ambitions; ‘Expectations’ does.

Each morning
Once I’ve established clearly what tutor time is for and what education is, I’ll use a variety of exercises to prepare them each morning.

Look in David Wells’ books Curious and Interesting Puzzles and Curious and Interesting Numbers, for challenging problems to arrest and stimulate students during tutor time. You could also log on to Yahoo and go to ‘Oddly Enough’ in the news section, where you’ll find a wealth of strange stories to provoke discussion and laughter first thing in the morning, with a range of stimulating materials for all ability groups. More able students particularly enjoy the ‘true life’ scenarios.

While you’re on the internet use your interactive whiteboard to introduce students to the Connexions website Jobs4u. It has a huge database of different careers which not only list qualifications required but, importantly, personal qualities, too. I ask students to write down three careers they are interested in and go away and research exactly what they need to do in order to embark on those careers. The next day, they discuss what they’ve found. This sets their minds on the future and what they need to achieve in order to get there.

It’s one of the most important aspects of tutor time and helps raise the aspirations of all, but, importantly, it gives students a map of how to get to where they want to be.

Martin Ransley is the Aim Higher coordinator at Highbury Fields School, London

  • Wells, D (1992), The Penguin Book of Curious and Interesting Puzzles
  • Wells, D (1997), The Penguin Book of Curious and Interesting Numbers