How to teach GCSE English to disaffected students at post-16 PART TWO

In the first part of this blog I explained that I wrote my latest book, How to Teach English GCSE Re-sits at Post-16, in response to what I regarded as a crisis in teaching English re-sits in post-16 settings to those students who failed to achieve a grade C at the end of Year 11.

I explained that the book focuses on five key themes: 1. Teaching English; 2. Teaching students who’ve failed to secure a grade C in English at secondary school; 3. Teaching students who are likely to be feeling disaffected, disenfranchised and demotivated by the prospect of once again studying a subject they didn’t pass the first time around; 4. Teaching students who are, by definition of re-sitting a subject they’ve previously failed, ‘less able’ or ‘lower performing’ than their peers who passed it aged sixteen; and 5. Teaching students who are now in some form of post-16 education or training, most likely in a sixth form college or further education institution, and are therefore to be considered ‘adult students’.

I also explained that the book is split into three parts: In Part One I explore ‘how to teach’; in Part Two I tackle ‘how to lead’; and in Part Three I open the lid of the ‘teacher’s toolbox’ to analyse in detail the new GCSE qualification.

The ‘How to lead’ section focuses on the four biggest challenges associated with teaching English re-sits to disaffected students at post-16, namely:

  1. How to improve student attendance;
  2. How to secure good behaviour and student engagement;
  3. How to get the best staff in place – and keep them; and
  4. How to timetable English.


In this extract, I will look at the first of these challenges: how to improve student attendance

Post-16 students, unlike their younger counterparts, are able to ‘vote with their feet’ if they do not think lessons are worthwhile.  Even though, by law, young people must now remain in some form of education or training until the age of eighteen, as adult post-16 students they tend to be afforded the freedom to arrive at their school or college when they have lectures and tutorials, and to come and go throughout the day.

It is therefore more difficult to insist that students remain on campus and a particular challenge to ensure every student turns up to every English lesson (and, when they don’t attend, to chase them down and drag them kicking and screaming back into the classroom).

Often, students attend vocational lessons but mysteriously disappear when it’s time for English.

Schools and colleges which successfully combat the issue of non-attendance in English get better results than those who fail to take a strategic approach.  For example, explicitly teaching the growth mindset and developing a culture in which mistakes are welcomed and effort is prized over attainment can have a significant impact on attendance.  Also, smart timetabling can pay dividends – if English is timetabled before all the other aspects of the study programme and is ‘sandwiched’ between vocational lessons, students are less likely to stay away.  Where English is timetabled for three hours a week, say, students tend to respond best when this time is divided into two ninety-minute sessions.

So, what else works when it comes to improving students’ attendance..?


Understand why students don’t attend


Firstly, it’s important to understand the reasons for student absence for this will provide you with the means of overcoming common barriers.

Often students don’t attend English lessons because of a lack of clarity at the beginning of the year – they simply don’t appreciate (because they are not explicitly told) the importance of English both to their future career success and to their success in completing their study programme.

Also, students become persistent non-attendees because any subsequent follow-up in response to their absence (i.e. the application of sanctions and the insistence on students catching up on missed work) is weak or completely lacking.  In other words, they quickly realise that there are no tangible consequences if they choose to stay away and so do it again and again.

This is also true of punctuality where all the teachers in a school or college have unclear and/or differing definitions of what lateness is and where there are inconsistent practices between curriculum teams and with different students.


Be committed to improving attendance


Secondly, staff at all levels need to be committed to improving attendance, and all must share the view that the reasons for poor attendance are likely to be wide-ranging, complex and interrelated.


Identify those at risk of poor attendance early


Thirdly, effective intervention means identifying as early as possible students who are at risk of poor attendance. For example, it is often possible to link poor participation and low levels of engagement in class activities to future attendance problems.  Identifying a lack of engagement might provide a powerful tool to assess those students who are ‘at risk’ of absenteeism.

This suggests that there is a strong link between the quality of teaching and learning, and attendance. In other words, teachers who are skilled at engaging, inspiring and motivating students may hold the key to improving attendance.  Therefore, ensuring that the quality of English teaching is high and that every lesson is engaging is absolutely fundamental to students’ success on all counts.


Ensure everyone takes responsibility


Fourthly, strategies for improving attendance tend to work best when they are regarded as everyone’s responsibility.  Leaders and managers need to be clear about the value of ‘learning walks’ and of ‘patrolling’ the corridors and communal areas between lessons.  All staff need to take responsibility for challenging students who, though they may be on the school premises or the college campus, do not seem to be in lessons or engaged in meaningful study.  This is particularly important since poor attendance is often about missing individual lessons – predominantly English – rather than whole days.


Have high expectations of students’ attendance


Fifthly, attendance is improved when there’s a whole-college ethos of high expectations for students’ attendance.

Students can be motivated and encouraged to develop high expectations of their own when good attendance is linked to work-ready skills, employability and improved future life chances.

Students can also be motivated to attend by using rewards for good attendance rather than sanctions or other punitive measures for poor attendance.


Use technology to make learning more flexible


Finally, with the increasing use of technology in students’ everyday lives, it’s both possible and preferable to make learning more flexible and redefine attendance as something wider than a student being present in a classroom at a set time and day.

Technology can be used to enable students to access learning whilst at home, thus extending the boundaries of learning beyond the traditional classroom.

Technology can be used to enable students to submit work, to have work assessed and to receive instant feedback.  When work is submitted online it can also help teachers to check it for plagiarism and to mark work wherever they are without the need of dozens of back-breaking shopping bags full of papers and books.

Technology can help students to communicate with each other and to collaborate no matter the time and place.

The challenge for English teachers is to plan and provide learning in a way that best supports students, and to consider how participation in online distance learning can be measured alongside their physical attendance at college.


Follow Matilda on Twitter: @between2thorns

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