Let’s not forget the ‘ordinary pupil’

12 February 2017, The Sunday Times Education Blog

Buried deep in an article on what makes a good school, you might find a paragraph on its provision for the “ordinary pupil”. But this is a species that deserves more attention. Some of the hardest work a school has to undertake is to care for pupils who are seen, or who perceive themselves, as nothing special.

Schools always celebrate the plethora of opportunities available to pupils, but they often don’t work hard enough to find out just which ones are taking them up. Many a school will take pride in what is achieved by the prodigies, who would have done well anywhere, and every decent school looks after its strugglers, but it’s in “the middle of the middle” that there is most value to be added — and the most to be done.

Does a school understanding the problems posed by the coasting or professedly unexceptional pupil? Here are six questions every parent should ask.

Does the school have a motivational reward system? Commendations need to be accessible not only to the elite but to improving pupils too, with the focus on effort over attainment across all pupil enterprises: creative, sporting, charitable and adventurous, as well as academic. And schools should not underestimate the value of a mention in assembly or in the school magazine of somebody who doesn’t usually feature. The good school will employ strong tracking systems to distinguish the real middle from the false middle (ie the merely indolent or disengaged), and to establish aspirational target-setting as a basis for conversations between tutors, teachers and all their pupils.

How integral to the school’s ethos is good coaching? Pupils need to be supported by committed teachers who know all of them well — not just the stars and the strugglers. The good teacher teases out the hopes and fears of every pupil and nudges the reluctant towards engagement. Children want to feel cherished for who they are, not what the school wants them to be. The best teachers are also great role models — adults engaged in and supportive of the school and its ethos. Form structure is important, too; as many children as possible should have access to promotion on merit, and there should be evidence that the school recognises the danger of creating “sink” forms.

Is there a breadth of activities available to and taken up by all pupils? Parents might check up on just how many matches the C, D and E teams play, how inclusive music and drama really is, and how the school’s clubs engage all rather than some. I reflect on the boys at my school, Dulwich, who have found their platforms and niches at one remove from the mainstream: the boy with a love of reading who has led the book club and creative writing groups; the boy who loves the theatre, not as an actor but in doing the lighting or sound; the founders of the Knitting and Poultry societies. At an early age, there should be an opportunity for everyone to “be and do everything”. And at the top of the school, the senior prefects should represent a cross-section of the pupil population.

Does the school offer a voice to a broad cross-section of pupils? Teachers should be sending a variety of pupils to school council meetings or learning forums – the reluctant and reticent as well as the naturally enthusiastic. It is also important to enable leadership opportunities for non-stellar pupils, and to find an alternative engagement for those disappointed not to be prefects. Finally, the school should be looking to ensure that pupil voice leads to pupil action: that pupils can take a project all the way from A to Z with (at most) the hidden hand of the teacher on the tiller.

How well-developed is the school’s house system? A good house system can elicit a strong sense of community and cooperation, and provide, through a wide range of a competitions, cultural as well as sporting, an opportunity for all to shine. Strong peer relationships and the right kind of peer pressure encourage all pupils to engage and lead, while peer mentoring creates opportunities to learn from each other’s struggles and achievements.

How good is the teaching — and do the best teachers teach all the pupils? Only excellent and flexible teaching can ensure that all pupils are equally challenged. The best teachers are those who can portray academic struggle as a learning opportunity, ensuring that pupils do not seek to hide in the anonymous middle ground for fear of getting things wrong. Embracing free learning rather than creating a curriculum that is wholly exam-focused also ensures that middling pupils are engaged, by creating different fields in which they can be noticed. Good schools tend to have more parents’ evenings, allowing for the discussion of the progress and wellbeing between the teachers, parents and the pupils themselves.

Every child matters; every child differs. Of course, it’s inevitable that some teachers will be drawn to those who shine the brightest, but a school should work hard to draw out the “middle of the middle” so they can excel too. It’s always worth the effort.

Dr Joe Spence

The Sunday Times Education Blog
Let’s not forget the ‘ordinary pupil’

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