Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

On the same wavelength

On the same wavelength

ASCL has opposed the government's proposal for termly reports to parents as a measure that delivers quantity rather than quality. As an alternative, ASCL member Alan Maddison tells how The Sholing Technology College has strengthened its partnership with parents through technology and a mentoring scheme.

In my 30 years of teaching, I have always been concerned about the limited opportunities for one-to-one discussion with students. This has resulted in many quieter students passing through larger comprehensives without tutors really knowing them.

I applaud the government's initiatives to encourage personalised learning, but I wonder how many schools have started initiatives that will make a real long-term difference.

At The Sholing School in Southampton, we have tried to address this issue through a style of mentoring which we call P3 to reflect the three dimensional partnership (P) between pupil (P), parent (P) and the school.

The mentoring system is something that we have been honing since becoming a technology college in 2002. Our starting point was the recognition that, in many cases, tutors would try to discuss progress with individuals, only to find out that students couldn't remember their recent test results, let alone what they were told to do to improve upon them.

Our aim was to improve the partnership by talking through strategies for improvement with pupils and their parents, with discussion based on all the relevant facts which would be available at our finger tips. The only way to do this was through computerisation.

We investigated the market at the time - the best software that we could find allowed discussion points and remarks from tutors to be noted on a computer. However, this was in opposition to my belief that real strategies for improvement had to be initiated by the tutors.

They provide the educational expertise as well as the knowledge of the individual to complement that of the parent. They then need to prioritise strategies which can be returned to the subject teachers to use in lesson planning thus helping all students, particularly those in greatest need of support.

With this in mind, we set about developing our own software package which displays all the data, including the precise and agreed strategy for improvement in each subject, on a computer screen. Priorities can then be selected, printed for pupil reference and returned to subject teachers for use in lessons - all using the same software package.

Parent-pupil interviews

As part of the full mentoring process, we also designated two mentoring days per year, one each in the spring and autumn, when the whole school was off timetable, allowing tutors to hold 15-minute individual interviews.

Our concern was whether parents would take time off to attend these mentoring days. We were very pleased and surprised when parental attendance reached 90 per cent, compared to 60 to 70 per cent at normal parents evenings.

Parents' comments reflected their satisfaction at being able to talk with someone who had their child's full results to hand, and who knew them as a whole person.

They preferred this to the standard parents' evening formula of five-minute appointments with teachers who are principally concerned with one subject and who sometimes offered seemingly contradictory views.

One parent commented: "This is the first time I was able to talk about my daughter in the round, rather than feeling mentally bruised and battered at the end of a parents evening."

New roles for teachers

In many respects, it was easy to sell the system to pupils and parents, who felt that the school was taking a close personal interest in pupils' overall welfare.

However among teachers there were concerns about two new roles - that of entering data as subject specialists and interpreting data as tutors.

P3 mentoring was implemented during a period when teacher workload was and remains a real issue. However, it benefited from closely following New Opportunities Fund training and was therefore at a time when teachers were feeling more comfortable with computers.

The system has received considerable praise from teachers for three key reasons. Firstly, tutors became more knowledgeable about the students and enjoyed the more relaxed and open interview with both parents and pupils.

An unexpected bonus is that many tutors have since developed closer relationships with parents and are now more likely to make a quick phone call to the parents to resolve any number of issues.

We also introduced it very carefully, seeking teachers' views at all stages and using their ideas to adapt the software to make data entry easier.

Staff can now use the system to quickly export their teaching set into Microsoft Excel and enter their grades and strategies whilst marking, which allows them to work outside the classroom.

Importing the data back to the main system can be done easily sometime later. Staff regularly use the software to obtain an up-to-date class list or details of past assessments.

Strategy-by-numbers

As part of the process, each faculty wrote numerous strategies specifically for their subject to help a student move up from one grade to the next.

Data entry is fast and efficient because each strategy is represented by a number which can be entered against the relevant student. Some staff prefer a more personal strategy which can be entered as free text.

We have also adapted the software to produce end of year pupil reports. Teachers were delighted to relinquish their previously onerous and irritating printing and collation duties.

A more recent development, to help tutors, has been colour coding within the software. Our top 40 per cent of students are highlighted green on the screen (unnoticeable to parents), the next 30 per cent amber and the remainder red.

Any A*-C grade (or level 5 in the case of key stage 3) is automatically highlighted. Consequently parents and pupils are drawn to the highlighted grades whilst the tutor can immediately adopt the appropriate tone in the interview, for example, by expecting at least five high grades for a 'green' student, while praising a red student with somewhat lesser results.

The design aim of P3 software is to provide a transparent and user-friendly tool. It allows tutors to confidently chair an interview whilst accessing and recording relevant facts so that all useful information is retained.

We have achieved the buy-in of parents because the individual approach gives them real involvement in their child's progress and provides a manageable monitoring role.

The system enables subject teachers to be more aware of borderline students, particularly those who have selected that subject as an area for personal development.

Senior managers are now better able to analyse grade data and predict future exam successes and teachers are able to intervene with students if predicted results fall below expectations.

Most importantly, all our pupils feel part of the management of their learning through a personalised approach.

Alan Maddison is assistant headteacher at The Scholing Technology College in Southampton, an 11-16 maintained school for girls.

He can be contacted on alan_maddison@yahoo.co.uk

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