Rudyard Kipling’s poem If is written from the perspective of a father who is giving his son advice on how to live up to the ideals of manhood. It’s full of wisdom about how one can live with integrity and aims to help the son to understand the world in which he is growing up.
There is one part of the poem that comes to mind when thinking about pupil progress meetings:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
Completing these conditional clauses is the ending of the poem:
Yours is the earth and everything in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
A caricature of the most heinous pupil progress meeting is a teacher getting a child by child grilling on why they haven’t done as well as they should according to an assessment a few years ago. There may even be some appraisal and pay progression linked to how well children do which can skew the reliability and validity of any judgements. The result is poor information and any decisions based on poor information cannot work.
Kipling’s Triumph is the list of children in the upper right sections of a progress matrix – compared to the previous key stage, they’re doing well. Disaster, on the other hand, is the list of children in the lower left sections of the same matrix. Most pupil progress meetings draw attention to these imposters and it’s how we treat the pair that determines whether the earth and everything in it is ours. It’s human nature to claim causation in Triumph and wash our hands of Disaster but as Kipling advises, we should treat these two the same and the reason for this is that they can’t be reliable – they’re only indicators of how much children have learned.
If we’re happy to take credit for Triumphs then we must equally assume the same for Disasters. Similarly, if Disasters are out of our control then so are Triumphs. The reality is that there are so many influences on how well children do on tests or the judgements that teachers make on children’s attainment that we probably do not have as much influence as we’d like to think.
So where does this leave us with making pupil progress meetings work? Put simply, they need to be solution focused, aiming to tackle systemic reasons for underachievement.
Taking the information that we have (test scores and teacher assessments compared to a previous key stage) as only indicators, leaders can run discussions on what it is that these children need that they’re not currently getting. Broadly, these needs can be categorised into changes or refinement. Sometimes, change is needed in order to get the best out of children but change isn’t necessary. Often, we would do better looking at how well we’re doing at the strategies that we’ve chosen and try to do them better. Changes or refinement can be applied to 4 domains within our control.
Does the information that we have tell us that curriculum changes or improvements are needed? Is the sequencing right? Are there chunks of prior knowledge plainly missing from our curriculum and causing poor subsequent conceptual development? Are we giving children enough opportunities to revisit concepts to embed them in long term memory? Are the books in our reading curriculum challenging enough? Are our model texts for writing fit for purpose?
Do we need to do something different with how we’re teaching or refine existing practices? Are we modelling enough? Are our explanations rooted in great subject knowledge and clear as a result? Does our questioning extend thinking and help to check for understanding?
Have existing interventions made any difference? Do the people running them have the right expertise? Is the content pitched correctly with the right scaffolds? Might pre-teaching be more effective than reactive intervention?
Would adapting the timetable, the school day or how adults are deployed make a difference?
A good pupil progress meeting should result in a clear idea of what leaders and teachers might do in order to get the best out of children. There’s another possible avenue to pursue here though. Might some children be underachieving because the effort that they’re putting in is insufficient? If we have trust in the strategies that we’ve developed, and they’re working for many children, doing something new is unnecessary. Perhaps we need to get better at encouraging improved effort from certain children in order for them to achieve better.
Kipling promises the earth and everything in it if, amongst other things, we can treat the imposters of Triumph and Disaster equally. Accetpting that Triumph and Disaster are fleeting, focusing solely on what adults can do differently to promote better outcomes is probably our best bet at using pupil progress meetings to enable every child to flourish.