Exploring the gender gap in writing attainment for children in the foundation stage

Guest post by Pauline Duncombe, one of our SUPER MEd alumni and former member of the SUPER Network.

I spent 2015-2017 completing the SUPER M.Ed, a part-time Masters course at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, designed for serving teachers.  I began the course just before retiring as the headteacher of a lower school in Bedfordshire.  Why take this on at such a stage in my career?  I have my daughter to thank for this.  She was part of the SUPER group (as well as studying for her MEd with SUPER from 2009-11) and encouraged me to enrol my school into the SUPER network.  This was an inspired option and I felt that we were being empowered to work together to research and look at our practice in a way that we hadn’t felt we could do on our own.  Meanwhile, the passion for research and the opportunity to work with other colleagues who were also looking out beyond their school, was inspiring me to do more.  I signed up to the MEd course just hoping that I would be a suitable candidate and was delighted to be accepted.  It was hard work over the two years but immensely satisfying at the same time.  Not only did I have the opportunity to research an area of educational interest for me, and the school but I also worked with some incredible colleagues as well as inspirational tutors in an establishment that I am sure I am still not worthy of! Although I am not working in school anymore, I am the chair of Governors at a local lower school and feel that my research skills and the work that I undertook will be of value to developing its future.

As a headteacher and early years practitioner, I have been interested and to some degree concerned about the gender difference in attainment especially in writing.  Schools are under immense pressure to close any gap in attainment, but my gut reaction was that this area had deeper issues to resolve than just tweaking the curriculum for the boys.  From my own experience, I was struck by the fact that differences in boys and girls skills and approaches to literacy were very evident even on entry to nursery at the age of just three.  So, what happens and influences this before children even enter the world of school? Having identified issues, would it be possible to ameliorate these through improved practice in the early years and beyond? We are all very aware that the difference between the literacy skills of boys and girls extends well into the secondary level and is a phenomenon seen both nationally and internationally. This may therefore, beg the question of whether it is possible or feasible to make sufficient difference and given the fact that men have better work opportunities and pay than women, is it worth it?

My research set out to identify some of the possible key reasons for the differences observed between boys and girls and to consider some of the ways that these may be addressed.  The research provided me with a secure knowledge and background to support many ideas that I had from a practitioner perspective.  However, I did find that there is a paucity of research in this area for my focus age group.  Luckily, I found one key paper by Gemma Moss (Moss and Washbrook, 2016) that did have information about the younger children and the influence of home and pre-school experiences that helped to evolve my further investigations.  One other issue that was also found was the lack of research within the UK and the educational system here.  There is much more research in the USA but it is not always easy to make comparisons between the two educational systems, For me the biggest concern is that Government sets expectations for outcomes and attainment which do not always relate well to what children are actually able to do in the early years and to this end there is a drive to teach to the test which inevitably leads to a narrowing of the curriculum.

My thesis sets out to explore the gender gap in writing attainment for children in the foundation stage.  The Government has set a requirement that schools close attainment gaps across many different groups including gender.  There is currently a paucity of information about gender difference for the youngest children in school (Daly, 2002).  However, an exploration of the current literature has revealed that the issue is complex with many interlinking reasons for differences between boys’ and girls’ attainment.  The notion that this could be ‘fixed’ using a boy friendly curriculum has been shown to be ineffective.  Researchers are now arguing that differences are due to attitude, socio-economic-status, parental qualifications and entrenched stereotyping from birth (Moss & Washbrook, 2016; Locke et al., 2001and Sylva, 2014).  From my literature review, there began to emerge three questions that were relevant specifically to the age group that I wanted to focus on:

  • will improving vocabulary improve writing content?
  • will improving co-ordination and fine motor skills improve handwriting?
  • will providing meaningful and interesting contexts for writing improve boys’ engagement and interest in such activities?

From the literature, it became apparent that language development was a significant indicator of success with writing at the end of key stage two and beyond. Moss and Washbrook (2016) identify that poorer language skills at the age of five both affect later achievement and school enjoyment.  They advocate that all children should have access to a rich language and literacy environment at home and in the preschool setting.  They also state that there should be an investment in ensuring high quality teaching in the early years.  This would support the work by Sylva (2014) who acknowledges the impact of low SES on the language development of children from such homes.

An action research programme was used in this research to investigate the impact of a dialogic reading system on the development of vocabulary of children in a nursery and reception class. The programme had been devised and documented by Whitehurst and Lonigan (Whitehurst, Arnold, Epstein, Angell, Smith and Fischel, 1994; Whitehurst, Epstein, Angell, Payne, Crone and Fischel, 1994; Whitehurst et al., 1988).   The children chosen to participate in this research were all under achieving boys.

I also looked at the impact of physical development on writing skills and outcomes for children.  In a study of low income families, Dinehart and Manfra (2013) found that fine motor skills were a good predictor of later cognitive skills in reading, maths and especially writing.  They also noted that it was difficult to state if the development of fine writing motor skills or fine motor object manipulation skills were most significant to the result. This link was also noted by Cameron, Brock, Murrah, Bell, Worzalla, Grissmer and Morrison (2012) including the impact of SES on future outcomes. Goddard Blythe, (2010) also suggested that there is a possible link with physical maturity and academic progress in young children.

A physical intervention programme was researched to determine if this supported improvement in the dexterity of the children. These activities were derived from the work of Bryce-Clegg (2013) and involved those suitable for using inside and outside the classroom.  Bryce-Clegg describes the fact that the normal physical skills that we all possess are to enable survival.  Writing is not fundamental but is something we have come to do to communicate with others.  It is a difficult process and requires practise.  To achieve this Bryce-Clegg advocates that adults need to understand the very small developmental steps to be able to move children on.  He recommends that not only do children need the opportunity to develop their physical skills but also their imagination to enable them to write purposefully.

When researching the impact of attitude and writing attainment, looked at boys’ interest in writing and how this may be enhanced to improve their engagement.  I believe that part of the issue for some boys is their attitude to and motivation for writing.  This is not necessarily the same for all boys as many are successful writers and conversely could also be an issue for girls.  Daly (2002) points out that there is some conflict regarding what constitutes good teaching of writing and that there is a growing understanding that if it is not contextualised then this can influence motivation.  In line with other evidence Daly notes that for good early years’ experience, there should be a broad range of opportunities rather than direct teaching.  Furthermore, a small-scale study in a Welsh primary school, Maynard and Lowe (1999), found that boys and girls preferred different reading texts and writing tasks.  Boys appeared to be less motivated by story writing.  This was despite their ability to generate engaging ideas during discussion time showing that this does not necessarily support or lead to successful writing.  Teachers in this school found that for some boys it was the expectation of quantity required by the teacher and their ability to maintain concentration that played an important part in the outcomes for writing.

To aid motivation, co-researchers in school provided a range of engaging writing opportunities to help boys in particular, to participate more effectively with writing activities.

The results from this research and evidence in the literature would suggest that it is possible to improve outcomes for boys in the foundation stage.  Whilst it may not be possible to completely close the gender gap in writing, it is possible to improve vocabulary and dexterity which in turn could improve writing.   Using such techniques along with encouraging motivation could also aid the attainment of older children in school.


Bryce-Clegg, A. (2013). Getting Ready to Write. London: Featherstone.

Cameron, C. E., Brock, L. L., Murrah, W. M., Bell, L. H., Worzalla, S. L., Grissmer, D., & Morrison, F. J. (2012). Fine motor skills and executive function both contribute to kindergarten achievement. Child Development, 83(4), 1229–1244.

Daly, C. (2002). Literature search on improving boys’ writing. Retrieved from http://dera.ioe.ac.uk

Dinehart, L., & Manfra, L. (2013). Associations between low-income children’s fine motor skills in preschool and academic performance in second grade. Early Education & Development, 24(2), 138–161.

Goddard Blythe, S. (2010). Neuro-motor Maturity as an Indicator of Developmental Readiness for Education. Presented at The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology Conference, Miami.

Locke, A., Ginsborg, J., & Peers, I. (2002). Development and disadvantage: implications for the early years and beyond. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 37(1), 3–15.

Maynard, T., & Lowe, K. (1999). Boys and writing in the primary school: whose problem is it? Education 3-13, 27(2), 4–9.

Moss, G., & Washbrook, L. (2016). Understanding the Gender Gap in Literacy and Language Development. Bristol Working Papers in Education Series. Retrieved from http://www.bristol.ac.uk

Sylva, K. (2014). The role of families and pre-school in educational disadvantage. Oxford Review of Education, 40(6), 680–695.

Whitehurst, G. J., Arnold, D. S., Epstein, J. N., Angell, A. L., Smith, M., & Fischel, J. E. (1994). A picture book reading intervention in day care and home for children from low-income families. Developmental Psychology, 30(5), 679.

Whitehurst, G. J., Epstein, J. N., Angell, A. L., Payne, A. C., Crone, D. A., & Fischel, J. E. (1994). Outcomes of an emergent literacy intervention in Head Start. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(4), 542.

Whitehurst, G. J., Falco, F. L., Lonigan, C. J., Fischel, J. E., DeBaryshe, B. D., Valdez-Menchaca, M. C., & Caulfield, M. (1988). Accelerating language development through picture book reading. Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 552.

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Focusing on grades is failing education

Post by: Jennie Richards, Emeritus Teacher Research Lead for SUPER and retired teacher. Please note this is purely a personal reflection and not written as a representative of SUPER.

In my last year in the classroom before retirement, I asked my newly acquired Upper Sixth students what they wanted from their final year of schooling. I went round each student individually and each student dutifully told me they wanted to improve their grade in my subject – until the last one, who thought she was being cheeky when she replied that she wanted to have fun.  Imagine the shock when I replied that she had given the right answer. This obsession  with grades is not just  confined to students worrying about test and exam performance, but virtually every school  I drive past has a banner outside proclaiming its OFSTED grading, and teachers are frequently graded for their teaching too. Perhaps teachers and their leaders have been working in “fun free zones” for too long, and this has led to current recruitment and retention problems. It has certainly led to mental health issues for students.

f for failure logo

Last June I attended the annual SUPER conference and joined a workshop about some research a school was conducting into performance tracking, with the aim of improving the accuracy of their grade predictions.  This is at a time when many universities are calling for post results applications since the current system, based on predicted results, is so notoriously unreliable. Are teachers barking up the wrong tree with frequent data collection, plotting progress against so called ability baselines etc?  Are we just putting untold pressure on students and teachers alike in pursuit of the so called target grades? (One school was recently criticised in the papers for making sixth formers display their individual target grades on their school ID badges). Have teachers forgotten that education is about learning, not performing in tests?

I reflect on discussions I have had with senior teaching staff who talked at GCSE level about “the grade C student”, or the “C/D borderline student”. My response that all students were potential grade A students was usually met with incredulity. However, over a long teaching career I learned that students respond best when they are told they have great potential. Why are teachers limiting students’ horizons so much? No-one has yet managed to find a fool proof way of predicting ability or potential. Students do not improve in a linear fashion – they have break through moments and can be startling in their new found progress and enthusiasm.

Getting students to question what they are told, encouraging a use of  alternative interpretations, using lots of different stimuli, making learning fun in group activities, being mindful of their insecurities and constantly encouraging and having faith in students  seemed to work in my classroom.  I see that OFSTED has just announced a change of inspection emphasis away from using “outcomes data” and towards an “overall quality of education” grading.  I am optimistic things may be changing in the right direction at last, but the cynic in me is wondering how long it will take to change the “tracking grades” culture.


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Action Research at Soham Village College – a quick look

Post by: Krista Carson, Teacher Research Lead, Soham Village College.

Research at Soham Village College has come a long way over the past 5 or so years. I’ve been with the school throughout the entire journey, and it’s been such a pleasure to watch each year as staff become more comfortable and competent at engaging with, and in, research in the classroom.

Last year I was appointed the Teacher Research Lead at SVC. In previous years, the school had participated in Research Lesson Study. When I took over the role from my predecessor, I felt that some minor changes were needed; as a way to widen the role research played with all members of staff, I decided to move away from the strict structure of Lesson Study (although staff could still go down that route, should they choose to) and initiated a tiny tweak – that of encouraging staff to conduct their own small-scale action research projects. These could be done in groups or independently, within faculties/departments or across different curriculum groups. The idea was that all staff would be involved, regardless of where their interests lay. The key was that, no matter what they did, staff should all have the opportunity to engage with what educational research said or was saying about the issue.

To this end, last academic year I worked with two colleagues within the English department, looking into issues around resilience. Specifically, we focused on a group of Year 10 students in English Literature. Below, I will outline a summary of the project. It should be noted that this project was incredibly small-scale. The findings cannot be generalised in any way, but are still worth sharing and discussing.

The work below also appears in our in-house Action Research Community (ARC) annual summary of research, Illumination.

soham illumination cover

So what was the rationale behind our topic?

Through an initial discussion to determine a research focus, we realised that each of us had witnessed a drop in resilience and well-being among some of the more vulnerable students within our forms and/or teaching groups. As such, we decided to consider ways that we could foster better resilience within the students under our care.

What steps did we take to conduct our study?

To begin with, we conducted a short literature review into various intervention programmes targeted at raising the levels of resilience within students so that we could conduct some small-scale trials ourselves, in the hopes of improving the academic resilience of the students within our care.

One of the programmes we initially looked at included the MindMatters programme established by the Australian Government (you can find more information about MindMatters by visiting their website: https://www.mindmatters.edu.au/), which provides teachers with extensive resources for implementing resilience based programmes within schools. However, one problem which we discovered was that a lot of the programmes require schools to invest considerable time and money into training staff to deliver the material.  As such, we sought ways in which we could adapt some of the material we found within our literature study into short, easy to deliver sessions which built student resilience in relation to specific skills or lessons.

Initially, we started with a wider-reaching research question about building resilience and well-being in students across various year groups. For the first round of our project, both Luci and myself trialed a specific intervention programme – a daily ‘gratitude diary’ (Wilson, 2016; Diebel, Woodcock, Cooper and Brignell, 2016) – alongside a pre-and-post intervention questionnaire, to measure any potential changes. However, on analysing the data of these questionnaires, and looking at how students engaged with the ‘gratitude diary’ across the two forms, there was no noticeable change in levels of resilience.

As such, we decided to narrow our focus to a specific group of students. We settled on Year 10 students who we identified as having ‘low levels of resilience’ in English Literature.

Each teacher used their own personal observations of their classes, alongside current Go 4 Schools data, to determine which students to choose for the intervention. It was decided that a small, targeted intervention session would be most appropriate, so each member of the group selected 2 students from one of their Year 10 English classes. These students were all identified using the following characteristics:

  • Written class work showed evidence of good understanding
  • Questioning in class showed evidence of analysis skills
  • Previous mock Literature exams had shown students were unable to apply learning in a formal setting

Once the students had been identified, we worked together to plan an intervention session linked to an upcoming English Literature Lord of the Flies mock exam.

To start with, each teacher was asked to provide Julie (who taught the lesson) with three positive comments about each student. The first of these comments was about what they offered to the class (e.g. ‘he has a great sense of humour’ and ‘she’s not afraid to stand up for herself and her ideas’).

The next two comments were linked to skills required in English Literature, so that students would equate the positive comments with specific skills needed for the course (e.g. ‘she has been making a real effort to learn quotations’ and ‘he shows good understanding of plot and character’).

Students were personally invited to the intervention lesson and given the rationale for the invitation. They were told it was optional, but that they had been specially selected because of their potential; all students chose to attend.

At the start of the hour lesson they were told that their teachers had picked them because, while they had shown excellent understanding in the lesson, their teachers were concerned that their confidence in the exam setting was not allowing them to succeed. They were then given the positive affirmations written by their classroom teachers; these were given to them folded over, to ensure privacy. All students were pleased and surprised that their teachers knew them so well. They were given the option of keeping these affirmations or leaving them in the room; all students were quick to put them away in their bags/planners.

The rest of the lesson comprised of building confidence and skills at the same time. Using the PiXL Knowledge mats, students were given work that was below their target grade for the first ten minutes. They were constantly praised about how much they knew. This was designed to encourage them to participate in the session.

They were then given a mock question and asked to plan an answer. The group discussed: approaches to the question; which quotations they would use; what they would say about each quotation and what other parts of the novel they would use to answer the question.

Next, students were given a more challenging PiXL Knowledge mat. They had to RAG rate the questions. They asked each other the ‘orange’ questions and the group contributed different answers. At the end of the session they had ‘red’ questions that they knew they needed to focus on for revision. They were reminded not to try and revise everything for the exam and just focus on things they didn’t know. In addition, they were provided with a quotation document and a filled in knowledge organiser so that all their revision was in one place. Students then completed an exit-survey.

What were our findings?

As mentioned earlier, the results from the questionnaire completed by the two form groups did not provide us with evidence of a noticeable level of change in resilience levels. Most students admitted to understanding what resilience meant, and rated their own resilience in the school as ‘medium’ both before and after the ‘gratitude diary’ trial.

Within the form time sessions, I noticed a clear lack of engagement with the activity within my Year 9 tutor group. Some students were very willing to engage with the ‘gratitude diary’, and did not need much prompting to complete it each morning. However, these students could be classed as being more resilient in the first place, and therefore needed little motivation to complete the task. It was exactly the students who would benefit from completing the ‘gratitude diary’ who were disengaged with the task. They needed much prompting and cajoling to complete the task during the two week trial.

With her Year 7 tutor group, Luci observed a similar lack of engagement with the ‘gratitude diary’. Although all students completed the diary without much prompting, many appeared unenthusiastic and apathetic about completing it.

The results from our intervention with Year 10 were much more noticeable. When comparing Go 4 Schools data in English Literature residuals, the following changes were evident after students sat their Lord of the Flies mock exam.

These results show that the intervention lesson had a bigger impact on the boys (B1 and B2) than on the girls (G1, 2, 3 and 4). Within our own lessons, all of us also noticed that after the intervention lesson the effort made by the targeted students showed a positive increase; they were more engaged and less fearful to offer their own responses during group discussion. Overall, the relationships between teachers and students improved as a result of the intervention lesson. In our discussion of why this may have been, we all felt that students had really benefitted from hearing about their positive attributes from their teachers.

An analysis of the exit-survey shows that 100% (all 6) of the students who took part felt: confident in their understanding of Lord of the Flies; that they were capable of coping with any challenges that might appear on the mock; happy to have taken part in the intervention; believe that if they ‘try hard’ they will succeed and that they pushed themselves to achieve will in the session.

So what’s next?

As a result of this intervention it is clear to us that providing less-resilient students with positive feedback about their skills, with clear links to the curriculum, had beneficial results for the students. In future, we hope to run similar, bespoke intervention sessions for students with low levels of resilience in specific areas of the English Literature curriculum.


Wilson, J. T. (2016) ‘Brightening the Mind: The Impact of Practising Gratitude on Focus and Resilience in Learning’.  Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp.1-13. doi: 10.14434/josotl.v16i4.19998

Tara Diebel, T.; Woodcock, C.; Cooper, C, and Brignell, C. (2016) ‘Establishing the effectiveness of a gratitude diary intervention on children’s sense of school belonging’. Educational & Child Psychology, 33(2), 105-117.

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Jelly and Chopsticks: Learning to Learn

Blog post by Charlotte Hart (Felsted Primary School) and Jess Stow (Great Dunmow Primary School)

 Learning, is it as obvious as teachers think?

Learning in English, learning in Maths, learning in Science. Children are expected to learn, learn, learn and of course they know how to learn. Of course all children are learning all the time but are we making assumptions about what children know about learning?  Do we need to be more explicit in teaching children how to learn?    

In the Dunmow Consortium of Primary schools we wanted to give children experiences to show them how to learn without having any preconceptions of the outcomes. Initial research by teachers had brought up the pedagogy of metacognition. We were interested in the cycle of planning, modifying and evaluating. This is where the pupils plan how to tackle a task and then use their experiences of success and failure to shape and modify how they continue.

Jelly and Chopsticks

Who doesn’t love jelly and chopsticks? We challenged the children to move a cube of jelly – not with their mind, but with chopsticks! We started off by asking the children for their initial ideas. What’s the plan?  How are they going to do it? Some children just wanted to get started, others were more reserved. There were no guidelines or rules here: they just had to have a go. Each child approached the task differently, which fascinated them when they thought about it afterwards and showed them that problems can be solved in many ways. Some children balanced the jelly on the chopsticks, others started using them to stab the jelly cubes. Some children even borrowed a chopstick from a friend. There were some successes and some failures and it was great to see children exploring how they could change or modify their plans.

jelly photo charlotte

A fun experience. So what?

We questioned how the children’s growing understanding of how they learn could be further explored so this was not a one off experience but integrated into all their learning. They certainly got excited about other workshops we offered, which included knot tying, building spaghetti and marshmallow towers, origami and writing with our non-dominant hand. Throughout all the fun we weaved in the cycle of planning, modifying and evaluating.


Fun, freedom and security

At each stage the children talked animatedly about their plan of approach, giving each other advice and tips based on their own experiences. Some children started using the cycle of planning, modifying and evaluating in other areas of the curriculum, such as when solving a maths challenge.  However, some children did exhibit negative emotions when things didn’t go as expected.  It seems that the least resilient children, whilst developing to some degree, remained the least resilient children. We now need to consider how to support this group whilst simultaneously promoting the resilience of all. 


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Addressing student stress: ‘Take five; feel better’

Blog post by Katie Neville-Jones, Teacher Research Lead, Bottisham Village College

With changes in the GCSE exams and the new 1-9 grading, the stress faced by students is increasing, and so is the urgency schools feel to find ways to help. At our Cambridgeshire 11-16 comprehensive, we’ve decided to start early and begin supporting children to cope with stress from Year 7 as they enter the school, with the aim of embedding helpful techniques from the outset. The initiative has not only helped pupils entering the school – which can be a stressful time in itself – but it has encouraged their Year 10 mentors to understand and manage their own stress better through supporting their younger peers.

In our work with Year 7 pupils here at Bottisham Village College, we adopted the Stress LESS strategy from the mental health charity Mind. The initiative aims to empower students to find positive ways of coping with school and exam stress using the message ‘Take five; feel better’. This involved all our students in Year 7 students deciding on five small changes that they can make to reduce their own stress levels, and trialling them over a five-week period. The changes are simple, every-day activities, such as talking to someone, taking a ten-minute walk and going to bed earlier. Students worked with older mentors to complete a simple action plan of changes, using the grid below:

stressless grid KNJ

During the StressLess workshops the Year 7 students avoided procrastination and got straight into deciding on the changes that they could make. Most students were able to recognise an area that they could make a small change to in order to reduce their stress.  Following the workshop, pupils had adopted some of the following strategies:

  • ‘Five minutes to relax each day’
  • ‘Listening to music’
  • ‘Be more organised’
  • ‘Drink more water’
  • ‘Focus on what I can do’

Why mentor?

Year 7 students were led in workshops to create their Stress LESS plans by the older mentors, and we found this peer-to-peer relationship has had powerful mutual benefits. With the Year 10 pupils approaching their own GCSE exams, being mentors gave them a fresh perspective on managing their own stress, and encouraged them to share strategies amongst friends.

In their feedback, their comments included: ‘The programme made me realise how important it is to stress less’ and ‘It gave me valuable techniques to help cope with certain periods such as exams’. This feedback from the mentors was what we had hoped to gain, illustrating the benefits for all participants.

What have we learned?

The Mind technique was a simple and effective strategy that we could adopt within the setting of a school. It is an initiative that we can continue to use and build capacity in the student mentors. We have shared our experiences with another local school and they are also trailing the initiative. I believe that introducing the ideas to 11-year-olds is useful supports students’ wellbeing and equips students with tools to manage stress. With all students understanding more about the causes and possible management options for stress, it is a small step to empower individuals to look after their own wellbeing.

Final thought, should we really be creating pressures that require this kind of stress management for our youngest pupils? And should we also be exploring ways to reduce teacher stress, rather than looking for ways to cope with it?

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SUPER Resilience & Well-Being Research: preliminary findings from our pupil interviews

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)
  •     Stress/worry
  •     Challenges
  •     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
  •     Resilience

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!





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Inspiring Schools Partnerships – the Schools Together Group’s first Annual Conference at Eton College 24th May 2017

Guest Post by:  David Hall (Teacher Research Lead at Samuel Whitbread Academy) and Jennie Richards (Emeritus Teacher Research Lead).  David and Jennie attended this conference on behalf of SUPER. Although all the partnerships presenting at the conference involved  collaborations of schools between state and independent sectors (unlike SUPER), it was to prove a thought provoking and interesting day which enabled us to reflect on our own partnership in new ways.

Keynote speakers at the start of the conference gave context to the growth of cross sector partnerships. Tom Arbuthnott of Eton College, as part of his welcoming speech, distributed a paper titled, “Independent-State School Partnerships:  An initial review of evidence and current practices”. This was produced by Bill Lucas, Louise Stoll, Toby Greany, Anna Tsakalaki and Rebecca Nelson. Bill Lucas then spoke in more detail about the findings of this report. It is available to download from www.etoncollege.com/CIRLResearch.aspx

This document provides both an academic literature review as the context for Independent-State School Partnerships (ISSPs), and a survey of current practice as reported by independent schools. Its conclusions show that not only is there a growing number of ISSPs, but that there is a wide variety of different approaches and foci for the partnerships. There is considerable enthusiasm for ISSPs, but significantly there is “no agreement of what constitutes best practice and we found no ISSPs which are being or have been formally evaluated for their impact or cost/benefit”.

John Weeks from the London Academy of Excellence laid out four key ingredients to successful partnerships of this nature.  He identified:

  • An identified need which could be addressed through partnership and skills matching
  • Financial security for the partnership
  • Academic security, meaning that there was an availability of expertise from specialist staff, mentoring, support, advice and guidance
  • A shared vision from single minded leadership in the partnership

Workshops These ideas were buzzing around in our heads as David and I attended a total of eight workshops out of the fifteen available. These described a range of current programmes covering mainly subject based developments, cross stage projects, teacher training and staff development.

An example of one of the workshops was given by Simon Davies who spoke about establishing a successful and sustainable schools partnership which is focused on:

  1. Working together using people, expertise, enthusiasm and resources
  2. Developing Priorities which inspire, excite and offer opportunities
  3. Being beneficial for young people, staff and schools

His premise centred around five fundamental aspects being essential to success and sustainability.  Firstly there was a need for a clear, agreed, apolitical vision.  Secondly, the people involved and their relationships need to have a commonality of purpose, an agreement for time investment and the important roles filled by the right type of characters to ensure the partnership continues.  Thirdly, there had to be a sustainable structure of meetings where the vision is repeated and cultivated, feedback and evaluations are discussed and resonance sought.  Meetings should also be planned for outreach to widen the scope and effectiveness of the partnership.  Fourthly, funding needs to be taken seriously and whilst schools should be prepared to be involved other sources of local interest and beneficiaries should be sought.  Lastly the management of the partnership needs to focus on transmission, collaboration, win-win-win and consistency.

The final panel discussion session also led to some key reflections for us both as the topic was, “How to measure the impact of school partnerships” which is often a topic of discussion at SUPER. The speakers were:

Speakers shared the view that partnerships need to be evaluated systematically and against previously agreed criteria. An emphasis on rigour and focus, a clear starting point, interim evaluation points and success measures were also necessary. The problems of measuring so called “softer” impacts, such as on resilience, character etc., were discussed as were ways to capture student and teacher perceptions regarding these issues.

Toby Greany emphasised that it is difficult to measure impact over different cultural contexts. He also spoke of the need to acknowledge difficulties and failures. He argued that just meeting measurable targets is insufficient because evaluation should be part of an ongoing improvement agenda, not just an end in itself. Whilst before and after audits can be effective, learning from all stakeholders must be properly evaluated.

Our Reflections. The conference made us consider the nature and impact of our SUPER partnership. We plan to develop a think piece to raise some ideas for discussion within the partnership, particularly regarding best practice, evaluation and cost/benefit analysis.

Having more than one attendee from our partnership proved to be a good way to promote an exchange of ideas and to share our experiences and interpretations of what we experienced. Even though SUPER is not an ISSP, there was much food for thought created as a result of a most interesting and informative day. Thank you to “Schools Together” for organising the conference and to Eton College for hosting the event so successfully. In addition, thanks to all the excellent speakers who contributed greatly to the experience we enjoyed.

David Hall & Jennie Richards

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What tools can be used to create and sustain teacher practitioner enquiry networks and partnerships?

Guest Post: Jennie Richards

Many thanks to Jennie, our SUPER Emeritus ‘teacher research lead’, for the following summary of the key ideas generated at the recent Research Leads Network Symposium hosted by SUPER on 7th March 2017 (see our previous two blogposts for more information, presentations slides etc.) Thanks also to all symposium participants for your contributions to the ongoing discussion and debate . . .

What tools can be used to create and sustain teacher practitioner enquiry networks and partnerships?

At the individual school level

  • The need to develop a deep and sustainable research culture (at governor, leadership and staff levels) was seen as key, but also challenging. The following suggestions were given as potential tools:
  • Recognition of the need to change and improve practice based on evidence based knowledge through Teaching and Learning groups.
  • Integrating enquiry into performance management.
  • Encouraging leadership structures and formalised support for groups to be involved in research.
  • Auditing and building on existing expertise in the school.
  • Offering time and possibly money incentives to engage with research (bursaries, Masters etc.)
  • Valuing, acknowledging and rewarding research efforts.
  • Finding ways to make academic literature more accessible. Research should inform as well as engage teachers. Developing opportunities to share and publish findings in practical ways which impact on teaching in the classroom.
  • Encouraging openness, trust, confidence.
  • Offering methodological support.
  • Knowing the appropriate time to launch and build momentum.
  • Mapping research interests across the school.
  • Involving parents and students wherever possible (modelling processes).
  • Creating informal and formal opportunities to share information in a variety of ways, e.g. posters, blogs, journals
  • Encouraging critical debate about evidence and impact


At the research network level

  • Creating the network with appropriate structures to support and sustain involvement.
  • Mapping research interests across the network to find common areas and problems to be addressed
  • Regular meetings of Research Leads from each participant
  • Celebratory information events/conferences
  • Recognising the need for shared communication and archiving structures.
  • Aligning the priorities and values of the members of the partnership.
  • Building non-hierarchical, non-competitive but inclusive, collaborative and trusting relationships.
  • Creating the ability to contextualise research to individual school s.
  • Developing robust, shared research knowledge and tools.
  • Developing good impact and evaluation tools.
  • Recognising problems and issues and sharing potential solutions.
  • Joint generation and publication of research findings


At the university/schools network level

  • Universities have a wealth of knowledge and expertise that can be shared with schools in collaborative networks
  • Universities have access to methodological tools and knowledge of previous research which is invaluable to schools.
  • Research capacity within schools can be built through university programmes e.g. Masters, and also providing specific training.
  • Schools and universities learn from each other in a multitude of ways – it is symbiotic.
  • Universities can ensure research rigour and critical evaluation.
  • Creating joint research projects to move beyond the case study approach.
  • Universities can support applications for research funding.


Some final thoughts

  • In an age of austerity, how can funding for practitioner research be ensured?
  • Research empowers teachers – they are hungry to learn more. Teachers love learning!
  • All teachers are graduates and have some initial teacher training involved in research – this can be built upon.
  • Should all schools be formally linked/partnered with universities?

The power of the collective should be recognised, supported and celebrated!











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A review of the Research Leads Network Symposium, March 7th 2017 (hosted by SUPER)

Guest post: Jennie Richards, Emeritus Teacher Research Lead (SUPER)

What tools can be used to create and sustain teacher practitioner enquiry networks and partnerships?

About 50 interested people attended this recent event, which was the fourth meeting of the new “networks of networks”. A formal welcome from Professor Geoff Hayward, Head of the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge highlighted the potential of research partnerships, coining the phrase which was to become something of the theme for the evening: “the power of the collective”.

The symposium consisted of two main parts, with each part launched through brief inputs from a variety of contributors from SUPER (teachers and Faculty representatives). The rest of the time was given to table discussions (each table hosted by a member of SUPER) where the main points were recorded on paper for future review.

  1. How has partnership research impacted on the schools and the university (benefits and challenges)?

IMG_9956Dave Hall, a Research Lead, spoke first, in particular demonstrating how using a networking survey of staff at his school led to significant insight into how information and knowledge about pedagogy is transferred. Then Rob Robson (a recent Head teacher) spoke of how involvement with research and SUPER had led to school improvement and a research culture becoming integral to the school’s development plans. Finally in this part, Bethan Morgan spoke enthusiastically of the symbiotic nature of the partnership and some of the challenges that were involved.

  1. An input on SUPER’s current joint research project, “How do we promote character, resilience and wellbeing in an educational climate of outcome accountability?”

Ros McLellan and Brian Barham explained how the research question had evolved over time, and the methodologies that had been chosen. In particular, emphasis was given to being able to use an existing survey tool for the enquiry which had already been successfully used by the Faculty, thus saving a great deal of time and effort.

Then 3×2 minute presentations followed from three school Research Leads (Abi Thurgood-Buss from Rodings Primary School in the Dunmow Consortium, Krista Carson from Soham Village College and Mike Murray from Impington Village College) with reflections on current findings and the next steps envisaged.

Discussions on tables then reflected on the research processes that had been described and any lessons that people had learned from the presentations which would help them to answer the question about useful tools to create and sustain networks as posed in the title of the symposium.

Finally the symposium finished with the question of where next with the network of networks? Nothing was decided at that point but hopefully more symposia will be arranged to build on “the power of the collective”. In my next blogpost I will summarise the ideas that were floated and collected during the evening’s table discussions.

Many thanks to Jennie for this guest post. We will publish her summary of key ideas next. For the session slides including programme, please see the previous blogpost.


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4th Meeting of the Research Leads Network Symposium hosted by SUPER, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, 7th March 2017

Over 50 participants attended the 4th meeting of the research leads ‘network of networks’ which SUPER was delighted to host at the faculty (see previous blog posts by Jennie Richards for overviews of past symposia held at Eton and Christ the King Sixth Form).


A more detailed blog post will follow but in the meantime participants and others who are interested can access:

SUPER would like to thank all the presenters and participants who came from near and far for contributing to lively and thought-provoking discussions!

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