Pupil focus groups can be used to evaluate your school’s G&T programme, as teachers Paul Ainsworth and Josephine Smith explain

  • What do G&T children really think of the G&T programme?
  • Do they like being on the register?
  • Are the activities useful and enjoyable?
  • What is really happening in their lessons?

G&T coordinators can spend considerable time pondering these issues, and in the staffroom, of course, everyone has a different opinion. Paul, one of the two writers of this article, would often be collared by teachers and told how G&T pupils didn’t want additional activities, only to receive a parental letter complaining there weren’t enough. He came to the conclusion that the only people who can really help you are the children themselves.

Completing an individual education plan with each G&T pupil would answer the above questions but is time-consuming. Informal conversations with pupils provide interesting feedback but can have little more validity than staffroom chat, while questionnaires can feel a little sterile and lack the opportunity to probe a pupil’s thought.

Another solution is to use pupil focus groups. They provide personal contact with pupils and, if organised effectively, offer valid and valuable data, too. 

Focus groups are a useful method of school self-evaluation. A set of questions is devised by the focus group instigator – in this case the G&T coordinator – and the interviewer uses them with a stratified sample of pupils.

To ensure that each pupil says what they think in front of their peers, the interviewer uses their judgement to probe the pupils’ responses and elicit greater detail. This is one advantage of using focus groups compared to written questionnaires.

Focus groups should not be used as the sole source of information gathering, but are best used with other evaluation techniques such as lesson observations, examination results, questionnaires, book checks and parental feedback to provide triangulation. The focus group data could be compared with informal data: conversations held with pupils, staff and parents, for example.

Planning a successful focus group

When planning a focus group, the following factors need to be considered:

  • the precise aim of the group
  • the people involved
  • the questions asked
  • the method of recording
  • how the data will be analysed.

Having improved our practice upon each attempt, we make the following suggestions.

What is the aim of the focus group?

Don’t make this too broad. It is very tempting to aim to evaluate the whole G&T provision. It is more productive to consider either the in-class focus by evaluating the quality of teaching and learning (even this is ambitious), or to study the appropriateness of enrichment activities.

Who will be in the focus group?

It is just as important to consider who will conduct the interview as the make-up of  the pupil groups.

Although at one school the principal was very eager to take the interviewer’s role for a Year 10 focus group to assess the quality of teaching and learning, it was felt that the pupils might be reluctant to voice their opinions. Instead the head of the sixth form ran the group.

At another school, where the quality of teaching and learning in an English faculty was being studied, an external KS3 literacy consultant, who was working in the school as a result of the National Literacy Strategy, was used. It was hoped that pupils would respond honestly to an impartial interviewer. In fact they were touchingly loyal about their teachers! Even so, they gave very useful information on possible improvements to teaching.

Similarly, if you plan to assess the quality of the G&T enrichment provision, the G&T coordinator may not be the best person to evaluate this with pupils as they may associate the coordinator with the programme rather than the quality of the provision. However, the G&T coordinator would be apt if he or she were considering in-class provision.

Numbers of pupils

In terms of pupil numbers, academic literature suggests the use of between eight and 13 people. However, our experience has found this to be too large a group to manage and gain each pupil’s opinions.

In whole-school sampling, we selected six pupils from a single year group, as pupils were often more responsive with their own age group. For a G&T focus group it is likely you will have to select pupils from different year groups. The gender ratio might reflect that of the school. However, if the gender ratio of the G&T register is very different from the school roll, you might have a different make-up in your group that could, potentially, affect the results.

It is important not just to use pupil volunteers: you are looking for pupils who will articulate a range of opinions, not just the keenest, most enthusiastic ones. In the case of the G&T focus group, you could present this as a speaking and listening masterclass so you might then choose pupils who find the skills of self-expression difficult.

Lastly, choose the time and location carefully. If it’s run after school or at lunchtime, will attendance be seen as a punishment? Could you hold the group in the meeting or training room so the pupils recognise it is an adult activity and feel that their views are important and will be respected? It is explained to the pupils that their views will be anonymous. Some interviewers go further in that they will not accept any personal information about teachers. However, if the data is triangulated, honest information from pupils can be extremely useful at a whole-school level.

Planning the questions

The next planning point is to be clear about the questions you will ask. The interviewer reads the questions out loud and then directs them at each pupil in turn. The interviewer may probe the pupils’ responses. If teaching and learning is being evaluated, questions could include:

  • What is your strongest/weakest subject?
  • How do you know this?
  • Which subject do you enjoy most/least?
  • Why?
  • What was the best/worst lesson you’ve attended in the last fortnight? Why?
  • What learning activities do you enjoy most?
  • How much homework do you receive? What is your favourite/least favourite kind of homework?
  • How often is your homework/classwork marked?
  • What type of comments are the most/least helpful in improving your work?
  • Do you know what grade your work is if it were marked at KS3 SAT/GCSE level?
  • Do you know what your preferred learning style is? Why do you think this? Do you think you should be taught just in your preferred learning style or in a variety of different styles? Why do you think this?

Recording comments

How will you record the evidence of the focus group and what impact will this method have on the pupils?

Some teachers have obtained good results by video- or audio-taping and then analysing focus groups. (Do bear in mind that transcription is a very time-consuming task and may not always be necessary). Alternatively, the interviewer could make notes and an audiotape could be used as a backup in the case of any misunderstanding later.

Analysing comments

Next the focus group data needs to be analysed.

The interviewer could draw their own conclusions in a written document if the recording is not easily understood by a third party. We tried to distil pupils’ responses to some of our more objective questions into easy-to-digest statistics. The management group could read the transcript and then draw conclusions. A more thorough method could relate the data to other information already held, for example, lesson observations and exam data.

Sharing information

Finally, how will you share with staff the information which you have collected?

If the focus group was videoed, this could be then edited and played at a staff meeting. This needs to be done very sensitively if pupils name teachers. However, this can be a way of explaining to staff the benefits of focus groups.

When we shared the results of a focus group which invited pupils’ comments on their experiences of English in our 11-16 comprehensive school, staff were surprised by pupils’ perceptiveness and admitted that they placed more value on pupils’ responses than they had anticipated.

Perhaps a written report could be produced and presented. We wrote an article for our in-house professional development newsletter, detailing our findings and providing information, which we hoped could aid improvement in other subject areas.

Focus groups as self-assessment

Establishing focus groups as a method of school self-assessment has, undoubtedly, many positive side effects.

Whilst we think we know what is best for our pupils, and most of the time we do, it is fascinating to see if the effort we have put in to the activities we take for granted (marking, pupil self-assessment, target setting, setting homework tasks and so on) is actually helping our pupils to make progress.

The English department mentioned above actually changed their marking policy based on pupils’ focus group comments. A decision was made to mark pupil’s work less frequently but set every pupil two clear targets for improvement each time exercise books were collected. Staff agreed that they felt that marking was less onerous, more focused and gave pupils much more practical advice on how to improve. 

Perhaps the most rewarding result of focus group work is recognising the confidence that pupils gain from articulating their opinions and feeling that their views are being heeded. One boy was clearly proud of having his views listened to and talked for several terms afterwards about how much he had enjoyed ‘that interview I was invited to’.

Whilst it is easy for schools to pay lip service to promoting a student voice, pupil focus groups legitimately and purposefully involve pupils in a dialogue about their experiences as learners that can only assist us in making those experiences more worthwhile.

Josephine Partridge is an experienced head of faculty who currently has a strategic whole-school role in a comprehensive school.

Paul Ainsworth was the senior teacher at the same school and is currently director of studies at Fulneck School, an established 3-18 school.

This article first appeared in Gifted & Talented Update – July 2006