I was thrilled with our French pupils’ GCSE results this year. They achieved us a 71% pass rate, which, to some, might not seem that high, however, I teach in a fully inclusive, comprehensive school and this is high for us! Brief context: pupils used to achieve a pass rate of 54 % (with only 34 pupils in the entire cohort) when I took on the HOF role, over 4 years ago. By stating that we are “fully inclusive” I mean (in terms of MFL) that we encourage any and all pupils to opt for GCSE study, regardless of ability, we really do not discriminate (as some do) by encouraging only our “More Ables” to study GCSE French or Spanish. We teach in sets at KS3 (determined by ability in English and Maths) and we always have pupils from our “bottom” sets (HATE that word!) choosing GCSE study and we actively encourage and are delighted by this.
This upturn in results was certainly no overnight success. It has taken us 5 years to get here. No exaggeration. Nor do we now consider ourselves at the finish line! Whilst I am no longer the HOF (I moved into SLT) these results are just another milestone in the journey. I may not be at the helm any more, but my successor has taken on the vision to continue improving outcomes for our pupils and I will still get to share in this.
At this point I wanted to pass along a few ideas for anyone about to go back in to school who might be feeling despondent about results, or for those new to the HOD role who might like some advice on where to start. Again, this list is just what I have found works for us, so please don’t see it as an exhaustive list!
- Sustain your vision – As clichéd as it sounds, as HOF, I had an unrelenting vision that things were going to get better. I never stopped believing. I wrote a bullet-point list of what I wanted to achieve; firstly by term, then by year and I literally ticked off our achievements along the way. I shared this list (in a condensed format) with my faculty staff.
- Bring your staff with you – I shared this vision with my staff and I lived it. Every. Day. But I needed them to live it to. How? To start with, I made sure I was visible and present in everyday lessons, doing “walkabouts” and supporting staff where possible. I was sharing my resources. I was walking the talk. I asked staff what they felt their strengths and weaknesses were and we used faculty meetings to actually discuss (how many meetings are simply information-sharing!?) what we wanted to achieve and how we’d go about this. We’d do paired observations and look at each others’ books and, most importantly, we TALKED and LISTENED to each other. We were (are!) a very close team.
- Celebrate every success – It’s important to remind your staff not to lose sight of the big picture- you must celebrate the successes, however small, because eventually, they all come together to add up to something greater and perhaps, more obviously “measurable” to whoever needs to know. This was especially pertinent for me in Year 2 of the development plan, when results actually dipped slightly from 58% to 57%. I reminded my faculty staff that out of this 57% was 18% A*/A and considering we never used to get the top grades at all, this was a definite “win” and worth celebrating! This helped soften the “blow” of feeling like we hadn’t improved at all!
- Share, share, SHARE resources as a team! – This is a no-brainer. Why have 4 separate staff members of the same team all planning the same thing at the same time? What a huge waste! Divide up your SOWs and resources and use your team’s individual expertise to make things better for everyone. When I first arrived as HOF, the team shared nothing. Not a thing. So, my first task was to set up the shared area and I literally dumped all of my own resources in there that I’d gathered up over the years. I didn’t care that some of them were a bit rubbish – think “exhausted NQT planning VAK lessons early in their career” and you’re about halfway there to the contents of my USB. Nevertheless, I opened myself to (possible) scrutiny (doesn’t everyone panic a bit when someone else is proof-reading their resources?!) and just gave people a starting point.
- Don’t make the mistake of thinking it will all happen overnight – Sustained success and avoiding being a “flash in the pan” one year, takes time and commitment. Changing an ethos or a culture absolutely takes time. It also takes a lot of patience and resilience. Do not get disheartened. As I mentioned earlier, you have to keep the vision in mind and for it to stick, it needs to be worked at, all the time. Have your goal in mind and never stop trying to achieve it. If something goes awry? Reflect on it. Ask your team what could be changed? Always be ready to hear suggestions and think about their implementation.
- Sweat the small stuff – Homework, presentation of work, punctuality to lessons, completing assessments in exam conditions, not calling out, looking after classroom resources, you name it, we worked at it. How on earth can pupils make progress in their learning, if the conditions for learning aren’t correct? Have unrelentingly high expectations of pupils and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your standards become accepted and it just becomes who you are (instead of something you have to do).
- Sort the behaviour out – I always knew that my staff would be able to teach better lessons if they had to spend less time on managing behaviour. We agreed our expectations in faculty meetings and we decided on department-level sanctions and how we could best support each other. This included introducing a faculty detention rota and doing “drop ins” to each others’ lessons. Especially crucial for us, as in terms of staff turnover, I had an NQT join the team every year. As HOF, you simply have to be a presence in your area; pupils need to see you, not only teaching in your own room, but around the department, around the school, out and about, even going on trips and dropping into other people’s lessons (those within your faculty, of course!) When I dropped in to MFL lessons, I simply would ask the teacher if the class was meeting his/her high expectations today and if not who would they like to draw my attention to. I would then offer a reminder to the pupil 1-1, in the corridor and draw their focus back to their learning. If it was more serious (rarely) I took them out of the lesson. This began to “bed in” and eventually all I needed to do was show my face at the door and the pupils would visibly straighten and look suitably on task, before I would enter the room. This allowed lessons to be more orderly, calm and focussed on learning. Other staff would comment on how pupils talked much more positively about their MFL lessons and some members of SLT commented that they had noticed the sharp downturn in requests for assistance! Of course, it wasn’t always plain sailing and I did make a point of getting SLT involved when it was required. It is crucial that as HOD, you don’t feel that only you can do everything to raise standards. Pupils must see that you have backup and that you can escalate sanctions as and when required. When pupils feel that staff work in tight-knit teams and follow systems, they know where they stand and the expectations are clear for everyone. This usually does lead to fewer issues all round.
- Praise and publicly reward the expectations that ARE met – We could never get the results to improve if we didn’t get the pupils working in a way which was conducive to good learning. But they also needed to know what we wanted from them. So we made a point of publicly praising pupils with a drive on really pushing the school reward system and trying to give merit marks for excellent work, attitude and effort. We launched a faculty “Student of the week” certificate and as I mentioned earlier, I am a big advocate of positive phone calls home to parents. We changed our displays in the classrooms and put more of the pupils’ work on the walls, to demonstrate what excellent work looks like. We introduced a KS3 and a KS4 trip to France each year – a massive commitment for staff (and pupils), but, if you can, do it, as it’s crucial to language study, in my opinion and pupils and parents love it! It really helps grow your reputation as the MFL department if you can run trips abroad.
- Don’t be afraid to take some risks– Ultimately, if a department isn’t performing as well as it could, something will have to change. In regards to the GCSE Course, personally, I grew tired of GCSE Controlled Assessments (and the fact our pupils didn’t seem to be performing all that well in them- The Writing in particular) so I did some research and thought about giving the iGCSE (AQA Certificate in French) a go. At this point I genuinely thought “well the results can’t exactly get any worse so what’s the harm?” I wanted to get back to an examinations-based qualification which was good timing, considering the new GCSE was on its way. Why did I want to do this? One simple reason. Pupils hated controlled assessments. I mean, hated them! If they did badly, they always wanted to re-do them (never possible in MFL) and they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t bend the rules. Most never really put much effort in to each individual one either, because they thought there would always be another chance and they’d try harder in the next one. Enough. I wanted terminal, “real” examinations and to be honest, I wanted it to be a bit more on THEM. Revision and making things stick in long-term memory, was an effort they would have to make and by us doing controlled assessments as we went through the course, just meant we felt we were constantly teaching to tests and the GCSE became really dull. I think this 2 year swap to iGCSE ended up helping us as teachers for this new GCSE and it forced us to address KS3- as we realised we weren’t being robust enough in our assessments, nor being ambitious about what pupils really could do in Years 7-9- especially because they were coming in with some knowledge of French from Junior school.
- Make KS3 your top priority – I’ve left this to the end because I really want it to linger in your mind. Too often we “intervene” at GCSE (either Year 10 or 11) and in my opinion, it’s far too late. My mantra has always been about not having to bridge gaps at GCSE, by never letting them open up in the first place at KS3. The cohort that has just left was my first year group officially in charge of the MFL Faculty. This cohort over the 5 years definitely experienced much better teaching, from a more cohesive department, where we were actively doing all of the above I’ve just mentioned. KS3 is vital for embedding knowledge and in MFL, skills which will then become refined at GCSE. You can foster a love of your subject and be more creative. I wouldn’t encourage “teaching to the test” at all at KS3, but rather, focussing on developing vocabulary and grammar structures and helping verbs and tenses stick. KS3 is when you CAN play the recording more than twice and allow pupils to read aloud from notes and sentences in their speaking assessments! We can play games and be silly! We know pupils perceive MFL as difficult enough as it is, let’s not turn them off it at the first opportunity.
These are just my experiences. I won’t lie and say it has all been plain-sailing. We have had staff leave and I have learned a lot about myself as a Leader, when faced with staff in my faculty who didn’t want to “buy in” to the new regime. I’ll leave that story to another blog post!
Remember, if we want to turn departments around, we need to commit to their long-term success. It’s brilliant, yes, if you can achieve really noticeable gains in 12 months, but in my experience, for it to become habitual and secure, it is something that you need to plan for over the course of a few years. It’s never easy stepping up to the accountability of being in charge of a department, but I would always encourage someone to go for it. Equally, SLT; trust that your middle leaders are planning for long term successes, over the course of many years. Don’t allow 1 year of results to tell the whole story. Support and encourage them if the plan falters a bit, and praise them and their staff when they have achieved successes, no matter how small.
Being a middle leader is a fantastic role, where you still get to teach, but also get to drive success on a larger scale than simply in your own classroom. If you’re interested in being a HOD, go for it! I wish you and your pupils every success! Our own story is to be continued………….!
As always, thanks for reading and happy to take comments/questions!