The blight of ‘Interventions’

Schools correctly want their pupils to do well. They want them to pass examinations and get onto A-Level courses.

They also want to do well for the school and for league tables.

As a result, a kind of mad rush to cram stuff into Year 11 pupils’ heads happens every year. It used to start in about March. I’ve now noticed it starts earlier and earlier. Departments scramble for pupils to teach for longer periods after school or on Saturdays. In one school I visited last year, this starts in June of Year 10.

What this means is that on top of the four (or in some cases five or six) hours of English or mathematics that pupils are taught, pupils are expected to attend after school classes, Saturday classes and holiday classes. Teachers, being ‘held to account’ for the progress of their kids, are expected to staff these. It has crept from being something done occasionally to an expectation. Teachers are expected to ‘intervene’. In some schools SMT say every Year 11 kid should be ‘intervened’ with. This is kept on a spreadsheet for looking at during performance review or for SMT to inspect on the school system. SMT might suggest this means a form of differentiation in lessons, but in reality they are expecting to see teachers deliver extra lessons, usually for free (the after school ones are often justified by saying “well we don’t pay PE teachers to take the football team”). It’s a monolith. After-school timetables, Saturday timetables, and holiday timetables are published on school websites and sent to Year 11 pupils’ parents. In crap schools, this is the most effective part of the school, getting Year 11 pupils to intervention sessions to sort out what is not sorted in lessons. In fact, the systems that evolve to ensure this happens can be the most effective systems in crap schools.

Most recently, the blight of expected interventions has been primarily but not solely on English and maths teachers. I don’t think I know an English or maths teacher who doesn’t teach beyond the school day regularly. With the new progress measures coming in, this will be back to every teacher who teaches Year 11. PE teachers get pissed off, because half the football team are banned from playing football because they have to be intervened with in maths. History teachers get pissed off, because when their session clashes with English, SMT say all the kids have to go to English. And all these teachers are giving up time voluntarily. 20 extra hours of English apparently makes up for underachievement in about 800 secondary hours of previous classes (plus homework and so on).

I should note here that things like the catch up premium and pressure to track levels in all year groups have meant that, combined with performance management, teachers have started intervening in this way with all year groups. It’s a creeping expectation. For pupils, these sessions become “compulsory” policed by SMT (ie SMT will go on about this one extra hour of maths a week as if it’s the magic bullet to make up for missing/ disrupting/ not being arsed in the other 4, and hence force kids to be there, calling parents and all sorts). As a result, the badly behaved kids who don’t want to be there are able to disrupt for everyone. Because it’s not ‘normal’ school time, those kids think the ordinary boundaries don’t apply (and usually there’s no-one on-call at this time so bothering to try and follow a disciplinary system, if it exists, is pointless). Pupils wear trainers, get their headphones out, chat and so on… and it’s not worth challenging them because SMT have usually gone home (though if those students don’t turn up, SMT will chase this up for hours the next day).

Occasionally, I’ve experienced a teacher refusing to do these interventions. Because of the intense scrutiny and pressure of “accountability” the Head of Department will either (a) ensure that those pupils still get interventions by distributing them to other members of the team (b) teach them themselves in ‘intervention’ sessions or (c) ask SMT to take the class. Because interventions like this are seen as a panacea, the bottom line is they must happen for ALL Year 11 pupils.

As a result of this culture, pupils have started relying on these ‘interventions’. In crap schools, pupils will openly say they’re not working hard or doing homework because they’ll catch up in after school class. Parents respond to complaints about behaviour with “but he went to the after-school session” and the extra sessions just become an accepted part of the school week which actively mitigates against progress. After school ‘interventions’ become counter-productive.

That’s right, I’ve seen schools where it’s observable that this culture of extra lessons actually makes results worse.

Even when they work, interventions often work because they’re not subject to the 5 minute engaging all encompassing lesson plan structure that SMT impose on ‘ordinary’ lessons. IE when ‘interventions’ work it’s because teachers didactically teach and then make kids do work to practice what teachers have modelled or explained.

Where they don’t work, they’re the teacher delivering another version of the very same lesson they delivered earlier in the week, usually the one they judge most important because the kids didn’t get it – because of behaviour or culture or because it was shoehorned into a lesson proforma or to create ‘engagement’.

I also contend that often when interventions work, it’s because the pupils hence get one hour of proper teaching a week instead of none. But more common is to find schools where results go down after they’ve imposed a widespread and desperate interventions process.

My solution is to ban compulsory interventions, teach properly for the 3 or 4 hours a week we have them, ensure pupils practice during lessons and at home, and allow pupils to drop in for help when they require it (as virtually no teacher refuses). That’s it.

Hence schools will stop taking advantage of this aspect of teachers’ goodwill for counterproductive effect.

Just allow teachers to teach properly (and encourage this to be didactically when that’s best), in a structured environment (ie enforce compliance), ensure pupils work hard and demand support from parents.

25 hours a week of proper teaching in an ordered environment is plenty to ensure every child gets a C grade and most get higher.

If SMT put their energies into this rather than arranging additional classes timetables, contacting parents, and chasing up attendance, results would be far more likely to rise.

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17 thoughts on “The blight of ‘Interventions’

  1. At Parents’ Evening the repeated question was “will you be doing revision sessions?” The reply that I had taught their children how to revise, modelled it and provided the resources so re-doing lessons was a waste of time seemed to go ok especially when I added how they could help by using mark schemes to mark past papers and look at workbooks to see completion and that I would help when stuck anytime as needed. In case it isn’t clear, I agree with you completely and am working the model you suggest. Parents will support this if it is explained.

  2. This rings very true! A question: what remedy would you support for the group of pupils who either came in below average (eg L2/3) and are willing to work hard to do well, but for whom the “normal” amount of time isn’t enough, or the “normal” children who need a bit extra to help them get really great grades (ceterus parabis- assuming all the behaviour issues you described are already resolved)? I’ve met many adults very grateful for the teachers with whom they stayed after school once a week to help them get a desired outcome in (eg) maths.

  3. Ditto for most schools around the country John. It would be interesting for schools to revisit their ‘vision statements and see if their actions really reflect their philosophies. Yes we are in a game, but how we choose to play it is down to us. Only the very strong SLT stick to their principles.

  4. So true! I quit ‘intervening’ in my old school, because I’d taught everything as well as I could first time around. If students wanted to come to me for extra work or help, I was available every day after school… but the onus was on them. I don’t believe adding more time solves anything – as you say, it’s a matter of whether the existing time is used effectively. And if you’re going to free up an extra hour to intervene, better to spend it on differentiating, planning or marking to make timetabled lessons better.

  5. Biggest problem is suggesting that Y11 is the time for intervention.
    That’d be like starting to tackle Nazism is 1944.
    Intervention needs to happen when individuals or groups start slipping behind in KS3 (and before), through short, sharp focused work, not left until they’re struggling to stay afloat and need a full emergency rescue!

  6. I suspect that this approach is also becoming prevalent in Year 6, ahead of KS2 SATs. Consequently, the kids/families will be expecting it later on in their education. It’s barmy (my new favourite edu-word), and driven by incoherence throughout the edu-system.

  7. What about equality though? Many schools which push the intervention game hardest are also those serving the less advantaged sections of society. Middle class parents have been peddling “intervention” for decades through private tutoring. Are we almost duty bound to provide our intervention classes to level this particular playing field?

    I completely agree that this is a pretty poor state of affairs, but not sure it’s as black and white as this.

  8. Hear hear.

    I teach maths at a good school where results are excellent but there is still a constant obession with intervention since the management seem to believe that it is possible for results to rise every single year ad infinitum. However, at my school most intervention with Year 11 takes place during the school day with kids who have been pulled from other classes where coursework has already been completed or BTECs that have already been passed etc. This means that staff such as me either have to give up free periods or, even worse than this, the classes take place when we would have been taking a Key Stage 3 class and so cover work is set for these classes instead. Often due to timetabling the same classes are hit meaning that you can get classes who face 2-3 weeks of solid cover lessons where they mess about and occasionally have a go at some questions on a worksheet which they probably could have completed when they were at primary school. The obvious flaw in this approach is that these Key Stage 3 kids wlil themselves be in Year 11 one day but management don’t seem to realise this (this problem is of course compounded when most of SLT are close to retirement).

    In my experience the quality of many intervention lessons is very poor. Often kids simply sit and work through old exam papers and then ask the teacher for help when there is a question they can’t do. This is not teaching. But you can’t blame teachers for doing this since they are given no extra time to plan these lessons and sadly since extra time is being spent on delivering intervention less time is spent planning for ordinary timetabled lessons which has the effect of lowering standards in the long term.

    To their credit, Ofsted understand that this is a problem. In their recent “Mathematics Made to Measure” report they were highly critical of a reliance on intervention as opposed to quality teaching in the first place. Our best hope is that Ofsted start to criticise schools where they see intervention or find evidence of a reliance on intervention and this may discourage SLT from the practise.

  9. I’m afraid this is becoming just as ubiquitous in many Primary schools, even down to KS1 level. In our (nameless) Federation of two London schools Y6 is festooned with large numbers of additional adults to support learning. At the school I work in as AHT we have two outstanding Y6 teachers who, in and of themselves I would be confident in getting children to high levels. This is being added to by a third teacher we are looking to employ across the year group for four mornings a week and another teacher already employed to Maths boost small groups of Y6 pupils. Almost all Y6 pupils attend after school boosters and, after half-term, many of these children will additionally be attending breakfast boosters (well, they do get toast!). Oh, and let’s top this off with other targeted interventions taught by another AHT in the afternoon and an Easter school for a week over that holiday.

    But think Y2 will get away without any of this? Think again! A large number of Y2 children are now being targeted for AFTER SCHOOL boosters and intervention. Yes, 6 and 7 year children are being hot housed to attain level 2c/b’s and 3’s. Having previously taught Y2 at this school and being encouraged to do a L3 maths booster, I think I’d conclude that my impact was close to zero. The children didn’t really want to be there (despite the bribes of biscuits and squash that somehow are supposed to compensate) primarily because they were tired and, at 6/7 years old, would really rather be playing at home. I can’t say it was really my most inspirational teaching either. There is something deeply, deeply wrong about this hothousing and the messages that it is sending children at an early age; that education is all about hoop jumping and short term gain. Yet, I have to acknowledge the pressure to be “seen” to do everything possible to boost attainment in a culture where any dip in performance, however cohort based, risks the wrath and, yes, intervention of the LA.

    What maddens me is that there is never any, ANY, consideration, by anyone, about what the impact of this actually is. There’s a foolish belief that doing more is always doing better; a culture of educational presenteeism that Mr Gove is wildly championing as the panacea to end all educational ills. I suspect that if you looked systematically at these interventions in a controlled way (has any research looked specifically at this area because I’d love to read it) that the gains would be so marginal that, on a cost/impact ratio, cost would massively outweigh impact. Yet I know that to suggest otherwise would be seen as heretical and most unwelcome at an SMT meeting. We must be seen to be “doing” all we can, even if the doing is pretty damn ineffective.

    I guess I have to hold fast to my principles so that, in such time as I eventually achieve headship, I can stick to my guns and make decisions based what I believe works and not be blown along by the winds of intervention dogma and cant. But I have to acknowledge I’m going to have be incredibly strong to stick to that mantra.

  10. Booster classes are quite the norm at my children’s school -for all pupils in yr6 ( all are invited and parents must give a reason for not attending and the reason is bound to be challenged) and for many in yr2. Boosters are offered in a way which seems to assume that parents should be delighted at the extra mile the school goes to for our children but for me it reveals a lack of confidence in our children’s progress and perhaps an acknowledgement of not actually getting the teaching right during the school day. Personally I consider my child in yr 6 to probably be under achieving and feel obliged to allow him to attend boosters to ensure he doesn’t miss out on something -what that might be I can’t imagine. When the results of the SATs are published the school might appear to be doing generally well enough to allow this miserable practice to continue and delay proper address of how things might be improved during the school day.

    Jonathan please do stick to your guns and if you can come and be a head at our school!

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