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Playing Catch-Up – What makes for a successful intervention strategy?

Which intervention strategies have the best chance of closing the attainment gap before it’s too late? Laura McPhee finds out… When designing an intervention, who are your target pupils? Where are they now in their learning, where do they need to be and what is the most cost-effective way to achieve this? And perhaps most […]

Laura McPhee
by Laura McPhee
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Which intervention strategies have the best chance of closing the attainment gap before it’s too late? Laura McPhee finds out…

When designing an intervention, who are your target pupils? Where are they now in their learning, where do they need to be and what is the most cost-effective way to achieve this?

And perhaps most importantly, what impact will your planned intervention have? Metacognition and feedback Back in 2011, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – an independent grant–making charity that strives to identify and fund innovative approaches to education – embarked on an extensive research programme in an effort to answer some of these questions. So far it has analysed 30 teaching strategies, innovations and extra-curricular activities designed to accelerate learning, and has compiled the results in a toolkit for teachers and schools.

Among those found to have the most impact are mastery learning, one-to-one tuition, peer tutoring, oral language interventions and reading comprehension – all of which add an average of five months to pupils’ progress.

The clear winners, however, are metacognition and feedback, with both of these cost-effective approaches adding an average of eight months to pupils’ progress. The toolkit is an essential starting point for any school looking to develop its intervention strategies – but what might some of the methods to which it refers look like in practice? I spoke to three schools, all members of the Schools Students And Teacher Network (SSAT). 1 Spaceman Writing St Mary’s Primary School, led by inspirational headteacher Geraldine Woodward, currently has 107 children on roll – a number which brings its own unique set of challenges, as pupils are organised into four mixed-age classes. St Mary’s has first-hand experience of carrying out the type of high quality programmes recommended by the EEF. Pupils have access to a range of carefully designed academic and non-academic interventions, with next steps planned for each individual.

“The teachers decide which skill is learned, but it’s up to the children to choose a theme, with the learning environment and accompanying activities designed to reflect this,” explains Geraldine. “This fantastic hook gives learners a real purpose for reading and writing.” Interventions at St Mary’s are delivered by class teachers and highly skilled teaching assistants who, in keeping with EEF recommendations, use structured interventions to complement what pupils are being taught in the classroom. “We had a ‘Spaceman Writing’ group for Y2,” explains teaching assistant, Nicola Nuttall. “The children came up with the idea after a discussion about space; they even designed the learning environment, helping me turn the door into a rocket. It was like they were stepping into another world, which gave my reluctant boys an exciting reason to write. They even wore little ‘alien hats’ every time we had a session.” The school’s inclusive approach to interventions ensures pupils are eager to attend. When they return to class, they are regarded as ‘experts’ in their field, and so are eager to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they have acquired.

2 Progress for all Pakeman Primary (National Primary School of the Year 2013 at the Pupil Premium Awards) has boosted attainment for children working below the expected level by pre-teaching maths, giving them a headstart prior to lessons. Armed with this knowledge, pupils who might otherwise have been less confident are given the opportunity to become experts and a point of reference for their peers. A one-and-a-half form entry primary in London, Pakeman is equally keen to challenge its more able children, and so is working on a project with the local secondary school for high attainers. Subject specialists are deployed to Pakeman one day a week to support pupils in maths – an arrangement that has made a noticeable impact on both attainment and progress. Interventions don’t just take place during school hours, however. Pakeman works with the charity SHINE to run Saturday sessions from 10am to 3pm. These take a thematic approach to the curriculum, including trips out and celebration activities, but just as importantly give pupils much-needed social and emotional support, as well as a safe place to go at the weekends. “The success of the project is dependent on the high adult-to-pupil ratio and quality-first teaching,” explains Fiona Spellman, SHINE’s senior programme manager. “Projects vary from setting to setting, but we recommend three adults and three teaching assistants for every 60 pupils, or one adult for every 10 pupils.”

3 Preparing for mastery At Foxfield Primary School in south-east London, executive headteacher Rob Carpenter is changing the nature of the school’s interventions. Though still used to deliver basic skills, sessions typically focus on ‘corrective teaching’ for pupils who, irrespective of ability, have struggled to grasp procedural fluency in a given area. Having secured these basic skills, children are then better prepared to tackle the challenge and depth of the school’s mastery curriculum. Interventions continue to be developed through embedding pupil collaboration and peer learning across the school, but Foxfield is also working on resources to support parents in helping their children reflect on their knowledge and understanding. A range of ‘learning question postcards’ include links to national curriculum areas, provide scaffolds for possible responses and recommend strategies that will help children to reach an answer independently if they get stuck.

One postcard, for example, asks children to consider what advice they would give to another child who is struggling to learn. Sentence scaffolds such as “I would advise them too…” and “I found it easy when I realised…” help pupils to get started, while prompts including “Can I tackle this a different way?” and “Talk through your thinking with a partner” stop them from hitting a brick wall.

Where’s the proof? According to the EEF’s tookit, these three strategies are among those that will help children make the biggest gains…

+8 months Children can make big gains by making frequent use of metacognition and self-regulation strategies, the EEF has found. In 2015, interventions based on growth mindsets research and philosophy for children both proved very successful. The EEF does, however, caution that pupils need to be taught explicit strategies on how to plan, monitor and evaluate specific aspects of their learning in order for this approach to work.

+5 months Mastery learning, says the EFF, does work – but it’s a tricky one to get right. Pupils either seem to make an additional six months’ progress, or no extra gains at all. Things to keep in mind include that when pupils work at their own pace, as opposed to working as a part of group or whole class, this method appears to be much less effective. Mastery learning may also be more effective when used as an occasional teaching strategy, as the impact decreases for longer programmes of over 12 weeks or so.

+5 months Early years interventions can make a big difference – around five months’ additional progress, on average – but there is no guarantee that the improvements will be permanent. Studies have shown a pattern of decline, where gains made during successful early years interventions are lost over time. The EEF conclusion is that these interventions alone are not enough to close the gap in attainment for disadvantaged children.

The SSAT brings schools together to learn from each other through a range of activities such as roundtables, learning walks, and practice sharing. To attend a Time to Talk workshop on 9 December, led by executive headteacher Rob Carpenter at Woodhill Primary School, discussing the ‘Why’ of School Partnerships, contact

Laura McPhee is head of primary networks at the SSAT; you can follow the organisation at @ssat

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