Eamonn Farrar, chief executive and former head of Hurworth Comprehensive School in Darlington describes how he developed unique systems of mentoring to transform a low-performing school into one of today’s top performers

A research team from Cambridge University, sponsored by the DfES, between 2002-05 researched the extraordinary improvements at Hurworth School. There was no doubt in the minds the research team from Cambridge University, that the cause of the amazing transformation in performance has been the introduction of a number of systems which are collectively referred to as assertive mentoring (AM). These systems include student target setting, tracking, mentoring, intervention and checking. The impact of AM at Hurworth has been much greater than in the vast majority of other schools using very similar systems. So what is it about AM that explains the exceptional levels of impact way beyond the scope of ‘traditional’ mentoring systems? And how might AM be replicated elsewhere?

Pupil target setting

Hurworth School sets all pupils challenging and relevant targets. At the beginning of Year 7 pupils are given an end-of-KS3 target level for each subject which is based upon Fisher Family Trust (FFT) D column projections. It’s the senior leadership team (SLT) that produces the targets and not the teachers. Once distributed, teachers are allowed and encouraged to change their pupils’ targets upwards throughout the key stage, but they are not allowed to change them downwards. The rule is that the underachiever is pulled up towards the aspirational targets.

Tracking progress against the targets

Key Stage 3

Tracking pupil progress is quite straightforward at KS3. Pupils record their targets in their planners so that parents can see them. All departments give pupils a customized tracking sheet (stapled into exercise books) on which the target is recorded. The sheet contains scheduled times throughout the key stage (once a term at KS3) where teachers and pupils agree and record individually, whether pupils are working above (A), on (O) or below (B) target. Teachers record the AOB on an electronic spreadsheet which is in their departmental area of the school’s IT network. An ICT technician transfers the AOBs onto a central spreadsheet and interrogates the data. Pupils with one or two Bs are identified by heads of departments (HODs) for intervention to get them back on track quickly and very determinedly. Those pupils with three or more Bs will also be picked up by heads of year (now called raising achievement coordinators) and mentored until they are put back on track. If pupils are achieving As, the headteacher will check with teachers to see if their targets have been raised.

Key Stage 4

KS4 tracking is more complex. In November of Year 10, subject teachers are asked to predict what overall GCSE or GNVQ grade each of their pupils will achieve if they continue to work in the same manner and with the same effort (whatever that might be at the particular time of asking) through to the end of Year 11. They are also asked to predict what GCSE coursework grades pupils are likely to achieve if the quality of their coursework continues at the same level as presented thus far. Teachers have to justify their judgements to their HODs who, once satisfied, then enter the predicted grades onto an electronic spreadsheet . Time is built into the school’s meetings’ schedule for this process to take place.

Fine tuning

The head or deputy then interrogates the spreadsheet in detail. The issues he checks first are to do with teachers’ responses. Are any predicted grades the result of teachers ‘hedging their bets’ and being over-cautious? This might be understandable, particularly from new teachers. Have we got any teachers or departments being ‘ridiculously over-generous or inaccurate’ in their predictions? Anomalies are challenged and amendments are made because it is critical that the information is as accurate as possible since the grades are fed back to pupils in one-to-one conversations by mentors and pupils need to recognize their achievements for the system to be credible.

Accuracy

From that point on the teachers are asked to repeat this process on a monthly basis through to the end of Year 11. For the last seven years, the school’s final April GCSE 5+ A*-C predictions have never been more than 1% out when the actual results are published – quite incredible! This historical accuracy is very powerful. It means that we can tell the pupils at the beginning of the GCSE course, with absolute confidence, that if they ‘play ball’ there will be no shocks on results day.

Professional judgement

Teachers have to be encouraged strongly to use their professional judgements when making grade predictions. They can become nervous about this because they are held accountable. The deal is that the head will not confront teachers with their predictions after the actual results are known. This removes the understandable tendency to predict cautiously rather than accurately and, as already stated, the system is very dependent upon reliable information coming through from teachers. That is not the same as saying that poor results go unchallenged but there is other evidence (residuals mainly) that can be used to challenge poor subject performance.

Subjects

Subjects have also developed their own proformas to give written feedback to mentors on pupils’ progress and ‘chats in the corridor’ are also very helpful. All feedback is followed up immediately by mentors.

Assertive mentoring – the conversations with pupils and the agreed interventions

Seeing the future

Having obtained regular and high-quality assessment and predictive data from teachers that allows pupils to ‘see their own potential future results’ at critical points in time, the key to what actually happens when the pupils eventually sit their examinations, is how that information is communicated to them and what interventions are applied to correct any under-achievement – in other words, the mentoring system.

Assigning mentors

All pupils in both key stages are assigned mentors at some stage. The most challenging pupils are mentored by the most ‘assertive mentors’. Those pupils who are on target (generally the majority of pupils now) are seen by less assertive, but nevertheless, high-quality mentors.

Training

Mentors are selected on the basis of having the ‘right kind of qualities’ for the job – loads of common sense; respected by staff and pupils; relate well to people; good communication skills; good problem solvers and hard workers! They are teachers who have a track record of bringing in good GCSE results in their own subjects and thereby have already demonstrated that they possess, and know how to use, effective intervention strategies.

Mentoring meetings

KS3 mentoring meetings are scheduled half termly following teacher feedback on whether the pupils are working A O B target. In Years 7 and 8, pupils with two or less subjects running below target are seen by heads of departments. Those with three or more Bs are also seen by heads of year. In Year 9, all pupils are seen by assigned mentors half termly and the frequency is increased for the most challenging pupils as the tests get closer. In Years 10 and 11, all pupils are seen monthly following the release of the predictive data. The monthly mentoring conversations usually last between five and 10 minutes, so mentoring is not time intensive. The head, for example, has 20 Year 11 pupils so only needs to set aside three hours or so a month. The follow-up from the mentoring is more time consuming.

Assertiveness

Crucial to the effectiveness of mentoring is its assertiveness. Pupils have to feel that this crucial one-to-one conversation with a mentor will be businesslike and have positive and direct benefits. It cannot simply be a ‘cosy chat’ or a ‘reassuring word’.

Mentor’s overview

It is important that the mentor has a ‘global’ overview of the progress of mentees, eg in 2001 a pupil just missed out on 5A*-Cs. However, he achieved an A* in art, where it was later discovered he’d spent all of his ‘after-school classes’ time. Had that been spotted, the mentor could have rationed the pupil’s time in the art room and ensured that he attended other-subject after-school classes as well. That may have reduced his A* to an A grade in art, but most of his other D grades would have been Cs. We learned from this. Getting the right interventions in place breaks down barriers to pupils’ learning. If the intervention doesn’t work, pupils are seen again by mentors and new interventions agreed. Pupils are not allowed to give up on themselves. The systems are relentless.

Laddish culture

This particular style of mentoring is used to tackle issues of laddishness and macho image. Ways are found for the pupils to opt out of this laddish behavior (prevalent amongst some girls as well as lads) without threatening their status in the eyes of their peers.

Checking makes the systems work

AM checking systems are rigorous and robust. There are no presumptions that commitments will be acted upon unless checked. This gives AM power and forcefulness. Transformational assertive mentoring has been fantastically successful at Hurworth School, and it has also been transferred to help a neighboring school out of an apparently intractable case of special measures.

A transformation in performance

The background

Hurworth School lies on the Durham/North Yorkshire border in the picture postcard village of Hurworth on Tees. Despite this, its 650 students come from a wide and diverse range of backgrounds with the majority arriving to school by bus mostly from the council estates in Darlington, some of which are amongst the most deprived in the country. Thus its intake is largely average in terms of socio-economic deprivation and prior attainment and, because it has been over-subscribed for over 15 years, the catchment profile has remained stable.

Unexceptional baseline results

The school had an unexceptional achievement profile through much of the 1990s. In 1997 38% of pupils achieved 5+ GCSE A*-Cs and around 65% achieved Level 5+ at the end of KS3.

Transformed results

Since then, however, there has been an exceptional transformation in achievement. In 2007, 96% of pupils achieved 5+ GCSE A*-Cs and 81% of the same cohort achieved 5+ A*-Cs including English and maths. The school’s 2007 SAT scores are around the 90% mark at level 5+. The school’s Fisher Family Trust KS2-4 contextualized value added (CVA) scores continually sees the school placed in the top 1% of schools nationally.

Transformational assertive mentoring is now being shared by Eamonn Farrar in conferences running throughout the country. For further details tel: 07951 391388

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