The following post by our Teacher Research Lead (TRL) Krista Carson (Soham Village College) summarises some of the preliminary findings from a selection of our pupil interview data – collected by TRLs as part of our collective and collaborative research project aiming to explore the following research question: ‘How do we promote character, resilience & wellbeing in an educational climate of outcome accountability?’
After meeting with the other Teacher Research Leads (TRL), alongside Bethan and Ros (from the faculty), in March, it was decided that a new blog entry summarising some of the preliminary interview data might be of interest to the wider world. As such, I’m here today to give a quick run-through of our initial thoughts regarding three of the twelve themes we’ve identified whilst coding the interview data. I have chosen these three themes as I (with the help of fellow TRL Anne Barratt from St Ivo School) carefully combed the initial interview data from across the various schools, focusing on these three themes; I therefore feel like I know the material a bit better than some of the other themes.
For interests’ sake, we identified 12 themes (collectively as TRLs and Faculty colleagues) for our analytical coding framework of the interview data:
- Involvement in school activities
- ‘Success’ –what does it mean?
- Exams – pressure (assessment, grades)
- Positive about/ Enthusiastic about
- Safety/feeling safe
- Curriculum issues (explicit and implicit)
- Equality issues (treated fairly/how inclusive is school)
- Caring – how does school care for you?
- Support – where from? Sources of
For this summary, I will be looking at the three themes of: involvement in school activities; success – what does it mean; and stress/worry.
Involvement in school activities
Whilst reading through the interview data we were able to find 40 mentions, across both primary and secondary school interview data, of involvement in activities within the school; a further eleven mentions were found of activities done outside of school. This suggests that school is, overwhelmingly, a key place for pupils’ activities.
Overall, Anne and I found it interesting that there appeared to be a split between primary and secondary school students’ involvement in school activities. The majority (if not all) of the primary school students interviewed said that they were involved in some sort of extra-curricular activity, either within school itself or outside of school.
Primary students mentioned a wide variety of in-school activities on offer to them. These included: ‘arts and crafts’; ‘football’; ‘after school club’; ‘running club’; ‘rugby’; and ‘cookery’. These activities seem to cover a wide variety of extra-curricular activities, and include more than just involvement in sport and academics.
In secondary schools, involvement seems to drop. Within the six secondary schools included in the study thus far, five of the six schools had at least one interview subject who said they had no involvement whatsoever in activities either inside or outside of the school. That being said, each school did have a number of students (either half or above) who said that they did some sort of school activity.
However, it was apparent in the secondary interview data that there was a lack of variety for activities offered within school. Most of the activities mentioned by the secondary students had links to the curriculum (for example, exam revision sessions) or sports. Students mentioned attending things like ‘statistics and extra exam practice’, ‘homework club’ or things like ‘hockey’ and ‘rounders’.
Outside of school, there appears to be more on offer for secondary-aged students; for example, some mentioned ‘horse riding’, ‘piano’, ‘cycling’ and ‘art and origami’. However, these activities are offered outside of school hours, and are therefore usually paid-for activities.
In summary, it appears that students are offered a wider variety of free activities to participate in during primary school, and that students are keen to be involved in these activities whilst in the early years of their education. However, this appears to drop off once students begin secondary school. This could be because the focus in secondary school changes to activities that link to either the curriculum, and in particular exam revision at Key Stage Four, or sport, which is not appealing to all students.
Success – what does it mean?
Within the interview data, secondary students tended to equate success with getting ‘good’ or ‘high’ grades. Some mentioned specifically ‘doing well’ in exams as being a sign of success. At primary, this was slightly different, with students suggesting that being ‘good’ at something was a sign of success. The concept was therefore more vague to primary students, and much more concrete for students within our secondary schools.
As mentioned above, secondary students largely equated success with ‘positive’ summative outcomes (namely exam success, in the form of high grades). Students often saw having the ‘right answer’ as being the pathway to success (in the form of ‘good grades’). Mention was made of ‘doing well in tests and being confident in lessons’, ‘doing well, especially in exams’, ‘getting good grades’, or ‘achieving target grades’.
The concept of ‘hitting target grades’ came up often in the interview data. This suggests that secondary students are largely aware of the targets that are set for them, and measure their success against these targets.
Interestingly, there was only some mention of how teachers/school can help support students to become successful, which would be an interesting idea to pursue further.
Also, some students appear to equate success with ‘winning’ something, or receiving a reward of some sort. This was not necessarily linked to grades, which again makes it an interesting idea to pursue further.
Across both primary and secondary data, the idea of ‘right versus wrong’ appeared. Students across the Key Stages made correlations between getting things ‘right’ and success. Many students, across the age groups, also mentioned that ‘trying hard’ or ‘trying your best’ was helpful in achieving success. Similarly, some students mentioned that ‘persevering’ could also lead to success, which links in with the overall theme of resilience, which is driving the study.
Finally, the idea that friends can play a role in success appeared across both primary and secondary interview data. For example, one student suggested that they felt successful when ‘people like all my friends [are] around me to help me when I get stuck’.
In the primary school data, children most often felt stressed by friendship or social issues; in some cases, students mentioned separation anxiety from home. These stresses appeared to change once students moved into secondary school. Here, students said they were stressed by things like: exam pressure, namely the desire to get ‘good’ grades; homework; difficult lessons; social and/or friendship issues; performance pressures; and high expectations.
In terms of homework, students mentioned a lack of understanding from, and coordination across, their various subject teachers. This often results in what they describe as ‘too much homework set at the same time’ from across the various curriculum subjects that students in secondary school study. One student mentioned that this often results in ‘piles and piles of [homework] to be completed by the next week’, which leads to high levels of stress. Another student, from a different school, said that because of ‘lots of homework’ they no longer have ‘time to revise’, which adds to their stress levels.
When looking at the subject of difficult lessons, one student mentioned that ‘at times [they] get frustrated ‘cos [they] can’t do the work…or teachers asking [them] to do things [they] can’t’, which led to high stress.
Overall, it appears that at the primary level, students experience stress namely through social tension, whereas at secondary school the amount of stress, and the things which trigger it, seem to grow and expand. Much of the pressure for secondary students appears to come from external pressures, such as exams. Further work is therefore needed to pinpoint how teachers can work with students to find ways to minimize the stress that they feel due to these pressures.
We will share more information about our project and more findings – from our quantitive survey and qualitative pupil interviews – in due course!