Welcome back assembly: make your effort count

My welcome back assembly this week was delivered as a YouTube video, rather than live in the Academy hall, due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. And that is – inevitably – how I opened my assembly: going through the COVID protocols for the month of January with a run-through of the rules about face coverings; expectations around twice-weekly testing; an explanation of the teacher’s role in balancing the need for good ventilation with a comfortable working temperature in winter; and an update on what we know about vaccinations for 12-15 and 16-18 year olds.

Once this reminder was out of the way, I wanted to focus my assembly on the importance of effort in learning. At Churchill, we have outlined the six things we know make the biggest difference to learning.

The six things that make the biggest difference to learning

These six things are grounded in educational research, and our experience and data shows that students who show these behaviours in learning are the most successful in terms of their progress and outcomes. And there, right at the top of the list, is determined and consistent effort.

But what does effort look like? Back in pre-pandemic times, we worked hard to describe what our expectations of student effort were. The result of this work was the launch of our effort grades system in September 2020 – which you can read about on this blog here, or on the Academy website here.

Our effort grades system sets up the expectation that all students will make at least “Good” effort. Anything less than “Good” isn’t enough – so it is graded “Insufficient” or “Poor.” It’s really important that our students know what teachers are looking for when we say we are looking for “good effort,” so we have set it out really clearly in their planners – and in my assembly!

Good effort

We have deliberately tried to write the descriptors for our effort grades as things that teachers can see the students doing in their classes, so that it makes it clear for the students how to show the teachers that they are trying their best. And those students who really push themselves can show that they are putting in excellent effort:

The effort grades that students achieve in their reports three times a year are really important to us at Churchill. We count students’ effort grades towards the House Cup: every Good and Excellent grade adds points to the House total! We also track them carefully to see how students are improving their effort, so we can congratulate them. Alternatively, if their effort is declining, we will try to understand the cause of this and offer support or challenge to them so they can bring it back up. But, vitally, the only one who can control the effort that a student puts in is the student themselves: they must take responsibility for the investment they make in their learning.

In my assembly, I talked about two students whose effort grades were tracked through Year 9, 10 and 11, and how they did in their GCSE exams (these examples were from before the pandemic, when exams still took place). The percentages shown are the students’ average effort grade score across all their subjects.

Student A started Year 9 with below average effort grades, but worked really hard to improve them. Despite a small dip in the middle of Year 11, this student got better and better over time – and this investment paid off. The student made, on average, 1.3 grades more progress than similar students nationally in their GCSEs. The difference: the effort they put in.

Student B tells a different story. They started Year 9 roughly where student A finished Year 11 in terms of effort, but gradually declined across the three years. The result of putting less and less effort in each time: the student performed, on average, one and a half grades less well across their GCSEs than similar students nationally.

We see this played out time and time again across the students we teach. In class, all students are taught the same lesson, but they don’t all learn the material equally well. There are lots of factors in the mix to explain why that is, but the single biggest differentiator is the effort that the students put in. That is why, at Churchill, we put such an emphasis on effort grades – and it is why, at the start of 2022, I used my assembly to remind students of why if matters, and what we expect.

You can see the assembly below:

Attitude to Learning: Effort Grades

At Churchill, we believe a student’s attitude to learning is the biggest determining factor in the progress they will make with us. All students, no matter what their ability or level of attainment, can demonstrate attitudes to learning which will maximise their chances of success.

Attitudes to Learning: where we were

Over the past few years, we have graded attitudes to learning as either Highly Motivated, Engaged, Passive or Disengaged, using the grid you can see here. During the last academic year, we reviewed this system. There were many positives: the focus on attitude to learning was a good one, and the system allowed us to track improvements or declines in attitudes to learning over time. The descriptors we were using were grounded in actual behaviours that students should show, and teachers could observe.

However, students told us that there were too many descriptors: it was really hard to pick out just what to work on next from the large array of criteria. This also meant that attitude to learning grades were quite blunt instruments: they were a “best fit” chosen from a wide range of possible behaviours. Finally, many parents found the headings imprecise: what does “passive” mean? The Academy thinks being passive is not good enough – but this did not necessarily carry across for all students or parents.

As a result, Directors of Faculty and Heads of House worked with Senior Leaders to redevelop the attitude to learning system. The aim was to come up with something simpler and easier to apply and understand, but which would still allow us to track improvements or declines in student attitudes over time. At the same time, we wanted to “raise the bar” in terms of our expectations of students’ approaches to their learning.

Introducing: Effort Grades

The result of this review is our new Effort Grades system. At each reporting point (three times per year), students will receive an effort grade from each subject. They will receive one of four grades: Excellent, Good, Insufficient, or Poor. The system is explained in the student planner on pages 13 and 14. There is also a dedicated page on our website which explains the effort grade system and, earlier this term, I prepared a video assembly for all the students to watch:

Effort Grades Assembly: September 2020

Excellent Effort

Excellent effort means being committed to getting the most out of all learning opportunities available. It is what all students should aim for. A student making excellent effort:

  • Excellent participation in the lesson at all times, and is fully engaged;
  • Actively seeks and responds to feedback on how to improve the quality of their work;
  • Shows great determination and views setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow;
  • Manages their time and work efficiently and is an excellent role model who is highly disciplined;
  • Uses their initiative in a range of situations without always having to be told what to do;
  • Shows dedication and enthusiasm for learning at all times.

Good Effort

Good effort means being a responsible and hardworking student who tries their best all of the time. A student making good effort:

  • Shows a good interest in their learning and is attentive and focused;
  • Responds well to feedback and targets and completes work to the expected standard;
  • Shows determination and is willing to persevere when things are difficult;
  • Takes responsibility for their work and is well organised;
  • Willingly does all that is asked of them and sometimes more.

Insufficient Effort

Insufficient effort means that a student is probably doing most of what they are supposed to do but is failing to push themselves or make the most of the opportunities available. A student making insufficient effort:

  • Often participates in lessons and is generally focused and well behaved;
  • May not try hard enough to improve their work after feedback;
  • Is usually well organised but does the minimum that is asked of them and not much more;
  • Might make a Good level of effort some of the time but this is not consistent.

Poor Effort

Poor effort means that a student needs support or intervention to become a more responsible learner. A student making poor effort:

  • Makes little effort to be involved in the lesson and may disrupt the learning of others instead;
  • Fails to act on feedback provided and as a result may not make much progress;
  • Is not interested in being challenged and will give up without really trying;
  • Spends an inadequate amount of time on tasks and may produce poor work as a result;
  • Takes little or no responsibility for their own learning or behaviour;
  • Effort is frequently a cause for concern.

We aim to use our Effort Grades┬áto help students develop their attitude to learning. Effort grades are sent home with each report, and used by tutors to set targets for improvement. Above all, they are there to clearly explain how we expect our students to approach their studies. Because, in the end, it is the students themselves who do the learning – and the more consistent effort they put in, the greater the reward in the end.