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All aboard the magical mystery tour: keeping them on the bus.

Differentiation: a dangerous word.

This is my first blog post.  I have wanted to write one for a long time but I have struggled with a lack of confidence in terms of putting myself out there for scrutiny and also with a nagging doubt that I don't have anything new to say.  I still have these feelings.  However, lately I have been thinking a lot about expectations and challenge, both as a parent and as a teacher, and I decided now was the time to challenge myself and to say what I think - for what it's worth.
I am lucky to work in a school that is doing well in the game of educational Jenga that we partake in - pupils do well both for achievement and progress and as such we are in a position that allows us to take time to reflect and make choices without the constant barrage of pressure to move up the league tables (a situation I have experienced many times before and which can create a push for short sighted, quick fix strategies.) In the past though we have been part of this game and differentiation seems to me to have been one of the first buzz words to be reeled out and used as strategy to prove that teachers are working to improve the chances of all pupils.  
When I secured my current job it was the first time in my career that I was going to be teaching full mixed 'ability' classes and this seemed a daunting task, having being used to strict setting in my previous schools.  I remember asking for advice at the time and was told, 
  'Teach to the top and they will get off the bus when they want along the way.' 
Now clearly this tactic has its problems and that old chestnut 'differentiation by outcome' becomes evident within the progress, or lack of, that many children make. The expectation of all children is not there (note: the dreaded Some, Most, All or Should, Could, Might .... shudder.) Children of all backgrounds and prior attainment fail to move forward and complete the journey because we are, perhaps unconsciously, accepting that they won't all make it. All it takes is one comment from Ofsted and differentiation madness takes hold.

What comes next is hours and hours of teachers madly planning numerous resources and activities for a single lesson. (Card sorts, different coloured activity sheets, traffic lighted tasks and differentiated objectives and outcomes.)  Teachers run on empty as they prepare countless work to target pupils at different levels. Flight paths are imposed as a way to track progress and often to hold teachers to account.  I think these are horrific things, especially as many schools have replaced levels with GCSE targets and the like (something Teacherhead writes about here.) We desperately think of numerous new ways to support individual pupils and to target them at their level but in reality we are placing limits on them and lowering   expectations. Instead of keeping them on the bus we send them on their journey by taxi, by bike or by foot.  We tell them they need to go slower and by default place a ceiling of low expectation above their heads.  

My youngest child is a clear example of this. Missing the magic 100 standardised score by one mark in his Year 6 Reading SATs paper has meant that his targets at secondary are low, despite his other SATs results being 'above average.' At the time his confidence was knocked by this and it continues to decrease as he encounters what he perceives to be lower levels of challenge through being given 'coloured' tasks at school, albeit with the best intentions.  In many subjects his homework task is his choice - invariably he will choose the least challenging and time consuming as he has 'learnt' that this is all that is required of him.  His motivation has dropped alongside his confidence and as a quiet and well behaved pupil it is easy for him to fade into the background. I know his teachers are working really, really hard to meet the needs of all pupils, to give them work that they can do - I have been there myself - but I really believe that in actual fact we need to change this approach. We need to keep all pupils on the bus and have high expectations for all.

So what can we do to keep them all on that same bus?  I believe the answer is responsive teaching: responding in the lesson through immediate individual and class feedback and through planning for misconceptions before hand. If our planning involves developing our subject knowledge and regularly reviewing pupils' work in order to give whole class feedback then we know clearly how we can help all pupils to stay on that bus.  We can model excellence for them, provide scaffolds to support, complete live marking under a visualiser so that they get immediate support, explicitly teach them vocabulary and knowledge so that they build the schema to utilise as they work.  (Andy Tharby talks about creating a culture for academic excellence here and his book explores this brilliantly for English - as I am sure does Mark Enser's for Geography and Chris Runeckles for History.) We can set homework that allows them to self test their knowledge and revisit prior work, rather than asking them to research something new or to write something without guidance.  Don't give options and choices - it's divisive and not all pupils thrive on competition.  Don't build a pillory.  We can plan a curriculum that helps them to build a secure knowledge base and clearly maps out their journey. If pupils are quiet and seem to lack confidence then we shouldn't single them out on the spot; we should celebrate different personalities but make the quiet ones our priority to nurture - something I have really taken on board after listening to Barry Smith HERE.

If we care about teacher well being and pupil progress then we need to look for ways to ease the load for both.  Teachers can't run on  empty tanks.  Pupils' confidence, self belief and progress will improve through intrinsic motivation.  If they see themselves reaching for equal goals and making those small, low stakes gains in knowledge they will enjoy learning and be self-motivated.  

At my school we have embarked on a Magical Mystery Tour this year and it is an exciting journey.  With Year 10 we are running a pilot where the pupils have not been given targets for their GCSEs. Teachers do not have targets for them and we do not have access to prior data - neither do parents.  This is something that is already in place in some other schools, such as Huntington School in York.  Each child is a blank canvas with potential. As teachers we are less likely to fall into the trap of confirmation bias or subconsciously make judgements based on targets and flight paths.  We can't expect pupils to make the progress and exceed their targets later on if we teach to a set level now.  At least that is the plan on our mystery tour with Year 10 and it is freeing.

In a CPD session I ran with my fellow Research Leads we referred to this as 'over the bar' teaching. High expectations for all: keep them on the bus.

Twitter  @MissJoT


  1. Such an interesting read. For the first 12 years of my teaching career, I taught mixed ability (11-16) in English and it was brilliant!

    1. Thank you. Good to have feedback - especially on the first blog as it is so nerve-wracking! I love teaching mixed ability too.

  2. Very well written and interesting. Thank you for being 10% braver and taking the time to write this.

  3. @ellieerussell2 June 2019 at 08:06

    This is an excellent blog that has got me thinking. Don’t stop!

  4. Well done on your first blog post. Glad you had the confidence to write it finally. I enjoyed reading it and will bear the points you’ve mentioned in mind.

  5. Great stuff & so true.
    We just have kids, lots of different kids, & they all can pretty much do it, with the right sort of support from home & from us.
    Keep blogging!


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