Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Can I be that little bit better at......wrestling with the intervention lesson monster?

As the nights drew in over the winter term, a number of lights came on in classrooms after the school day had finished.  Across the country in numerous secondary schools, teachers began to run Year 11 'intervention' sessions in the build up to final exams.  Many of these included revision lessons, coursework catch up sessions, additional reteach sessions or specific intervention groups.  The vast majority of them are invaluable additions to the schools curriculum and offer opportunities for various students who need that extra support.  In fact some of these are vital in helping a specific few leave school with an education that will set them up for life.  Teachers work tirelessly with individuals and some may say that massive gains are made.  There are however some worries that have begun to crop up.

I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to network and even work with numerous teachers and departments across the country.  One thing that has come up quite often of late is the following scenario.

A teacher plans a very well designed lesson which asks students to learn new content and then add this new knowledge to a piece of coursework/extended writing.  The task is set and students begin to get down to work.  As the teacher moves around the class, she notices that a few of the individuals have completed very little work.  As is expected, the teacher challenges this position and is met by the answer:

"It's OK Miss, I'll do it in catch up class after school on Thursday"

On the face of this there are two main problems.  The first is obvious in the fact that a student is producing minimal work within a lesson.  That can be common within the classroom and can be easily responded to.  The second is the fact that a student is choosing to do minimal work in timetabled lessons, simply to do this work in additional support sessions.  Is this right?  Has the balance of what timetabled lessons are for suddenly shifted?

The point I am therefore pondering (and am yet undecided upon) is whether intervention and catch up sessions have become a problem?  Are the provisions, all with the right intentions, actually causing some students to do less work in class and rely more heavily on time outside the lesson?  Is a culture cropping up that were not aware of?

Are we replacing what helps with other stuff?

Revision sessions and support groups for specific students are an extremely helpful option.  But have other 'catch up' sessions crept into this category?  Are sessions now being put on and teachers time being used to help those who have chosen not to do the work previously in lessons?  And if so, is this rewarding them?

The safety net

Does the fact that schools run sessions after school give students that additional safety net?  Does the presence of them give the message to students that even if you produce minimal work in lessons then there is still time for you to catch up later on?  My biggest worry is that it might.  If students believe that there is an additional opportunity that they can take, then will they choose at times to take their foot off of the gas?

The decision maker

I chatted to a well grounded student today and posed this exact question about additional catch up sessions.  They came up with a number of reasons in a balanced way justifying their place, and even their removal, from school.  One of the biggest things he said was that the presence of them might be giving students who"can't be bothered" a reason to choose not to do any work.  The knowledge that they could catch up at a later date might allow them to pick and choose when they wanted to do anything in actual lesson time.  

The school within a school

With the creation of additional sessions after school, are we inadvertently creating two schools.  With the school day ending does another one begin?

Are the pressures of teaching being passed onto students?

With the increased levels of accountability and pressure for results, do teachers feel that they are required to run these sessions to fulfill target grades?  Is this additional pressure being passed onto students and in turn increasing their stress levels?

The enjoyment of learning

With this in mind, is the expectation and requirement of students to attend these sessions actually removing the love of learning?  Is the memory of staying most nights after school for most of Year 11 a memory that we want students to leave with?

A change in balance

Are additional sessions shifting the responsibility for students grades from the student and onto the teacher?  Does it feel like we have to work harder to get students through their GCSE's?

Teachers workload and stress levels

The additional laying out of these types of sessions will ultimately lead to an increased workload.  With workload itself being a national talking point, are we laying more pressure on teachers to not only teach their timetabled lessons, but to also teach additional lessons outside of curriculum time?

Is it actually counterproductive?

And this is my final thought I'm wrestling with.  Because we want the best for our students, and we want to ensure we have the best results possible for our own professional progress, do we feel that we should be doing these sessions?  Is that part of the problem though?  If they weren't rolled out in schools would students work harder?  And that was a point made by a student.  If they weren't there they'd have to work more in class.  They knew that they would have to knuckle down, learn what was there to be learnt, complete work to the best of their ability and shift the responsibility back to themselves.  Because they weren't on offer, they would have to ensure they used curriculum time really well.  Without the safety net they felt it would push them to work more in class.  So can we be that little bit better at using catch up classes?  Maybe so, and here's a few ideas how.

1. Ensuring catch up sessions aren't just an opportunity to recover what was taught in lessons

Because this may convey the message that if they don't listen first time in class, they can listen to it again in our time after school.

2. Stretch, challenge and enrichment

Instead of catch up classes, can sessions after school actually go beyond the syllabus?  Can we network with local Universities to run master classes to inspire the next graduates?  Can we link with specialist providers in our field to show how our subjects are used in industry?  Can we bring in experts to share their knowledge and push learning beyond its existing level?

3. Setting a criteria for these sessions

There are students who genuinely need this additional support and I don't know any teachers who would want to not provide this.  But do we ensure that those who need it get it rather than those who can't be bothered getting a second chance?  Could an effort grade or indicator be one option.  Students who we know have tried hard, even if they have picked up misconceptions, could be allowed to attend, with those who simply chose to do nothing being asked not to?

4. Removing the need for them?

Could the way we design lessons, curriculum's and schemes be reviewed?  Could we analyse our teaching and learning?  Asking the question why additional sessions are actually needed could lead to some real improvements to the department.  Why do we not have the time to deliver the course in lessons?  Why isn't the content sticking?  Is the delivery of content and the quality of teaching an area best focused on?  What tweaks could we implement now so that we manage workload and expectations?

And so.....

The truth of the matter is I am still undecided.  I probably will be for a very long time.  It feels as though they have become a part of a schools culture and removing them may be too much of a shock to the system.  And why would you remove them if hardworking students are seeking to improve their grades further?  But then again, would removing them and addressing why we might need them solve the problem itself?  Might that be the change in culture that our teachers and students actually need?


  1. Whilst I think you are right to question whether intervention sessions are effective, or even counter-productive, I think that your questioning of the pressure on teachers (and pupils) is the more fundamnetal point. Teachers and pupils should work hard for whatever the appropriate number of hours in a year is??? and the outcomes from that should be perfectly acceptable. At the moment, the pressure is always for year-on-year gains and that will always be a pressure to work more hours, and that isn't sustainable.

  2. I completely agree. The term 'But did you do everything to get your students their grades?' seems to be making teachers work harder and harder each year. The question is, with that expectation, accountability and the expected gains you highlight, what will teaching look like in future years? How many hours is enough? Will there be an expectation that all staff offer after school interventions? With workload already an issue, what affects will this have on teacher well-being?

  3. Hi Dave

    In a tweet I said our Eng. Dept. set tasks to do before the intervention session. I said I would get back to you about it. This is what the Head of English says:

    We always make sure that the task completed prior to the intervention informs the lesson so that we can use the time solely on making further progress and ‘tweaking’. We typically select exam practice tasks to do this, e.g. a A680 English Language Q1 Reading Paper task.

    The pupils will bring their essay and using self and peer assessment as well as staff knowledge of class targets and previous pupils’ failings with the task (this is where past paper tasks come in handy)pupils review and develop their answers. Often, the pupil is then set the redraft for their next homework or alternatively we provide the pupils with an A* or C grade response that we’ve written.

    Using this method we find the extra lesson ensures progress rather than being concentrated on the reading and analysis of a text that will not be in their exam, instead

  4. The problem is as teachers we are trying to improve the ship whilst still at sea so any mistakes could be catastrophic so you cannot afford not to intervene. It is ok for the outcomes for young people to flatline nationally as that shows the government have halted 'grade inflation' and introduced 'more rigour' but schools must improve outcomes and close gaps year on year

  5. I am just starting a pilot scheme on intervention based on the use of Twitter rather than have a whole class back after school. Students can DM me anything they have individually struggled with during the lesson, week or a particular point they need clarification on. I can pose questions to a group or individuals and use answers to form extra support or guidance at breakfast meetings. Wish me luck.