So.. I’ve pretty much finished my MA (secretly jumping around the room in celebration!) It has been a tough slog, enjoyable but hard work. I though I would share summary of my final work with you ..even if it is just to make me feel happy because I’ve been desperately trying to get this research to state of completion over the last year! I have edited quite substantially and tried to think of the most useful bits for you as the reader. I apologise in advance if its a bit too ‘researchy‘ for some – hopefully it could be useful in some cases.
There are imminent changes to the way that our KS5 phase of our education system is taught and structured. By 2015, students will be required to stay in some form of education or work based training until they are 18 years old as well as being subjected to the huge curriculum reforms due for this teaching phase in order to raise standards. (Gove 2013)
With the changes to assessment structure, it is important for us to consider how students manage their learning at present. What is it about the current system that doesn’t work? Are there things that we can learn from our current cohort of 6th form students to ensure that the curriculum reform is a smooth and positive change?
This paper looks at the student perspective on the current KS5 system with a focus on students of creative subjects to explore how they manage their time and how they feel about their learning. The use of student voice is an essential tool in this research as it contextualises the current state of post 16 learning. With the structure of an Appreciative Inquiry, students steer the research and make suggestions to inform change and improve systems before developing curriculum structures and planning for new exam assessments become a priority for academic subject leaders.
The way that children develop in their learning is a well understood area of education research. A particular focus in recent years has been placed on studying the way that children deal with transition between learning phases of their education and the way that this transition impacts on their future learning. Typically the transition between KS4 and KS5 level study has followed the same template for at least the last 15 years, my own experience of this phase of education does not differ that greatly to the experiences of students today. However, the education system has evolved somewhat in that time period since the recommendations of Sir Ron Dearing in his 1996 report resulting in implementation of curriculum reform for students aged 14-19 from the year 2000. This new way of learning, particularly in the post 16 phase of the education system, has put an increased pressure on students requiring them to demonstrate their learning through the summative assessment of AS level examinations at the end of year 12 rather than previously at the end of year 13. Recent reports from the DfE suggest that the credibility of A level study is lacking and that students are achieving higher academic grades than they deserve because of the modular systems that have been in place for the last 14 years. Further curriculum reform is planned for implementation from 2015 to reverse the way that A levels are assessed to provide students with a more sustained period of learning in the classroom before summative assessments at the end of a 2 year period in order to achieve their final grade outcomes. This system is anticipated to reflect the previous approach to A level study and encourage students to learn rather than the modular approach designed to encourage frequent re-sits as the course progresses to improve the overall grade outcome (Tomlinson 2002:12)
My own experience of teaching across the KS4 and KS5 age ranges is that there is a huge difference in the way that students approach their learning. Throughout the range of subjects taught within the 6th form there is a very varied range of results every year. My own subject area of Creative Art and Design Textiles is no exception to this trend. Even with detailed analysis every year and precise personalised support and intervention for the students, there are a number of students every year who (despite achieving good grades at GSCE level study in their creative subjects) fail to reach their potential when they progress onto AS level. It is this particular area that has prompted my research. The outcome of this study is not to look for a magical way of allowing students to access the highest A level grades, the research should result in a deeper understanding of how to approach the way that we provide post 16 learning opportunities for the students, the way that we support them in their learning and allow them to achieve their own potential within their chosen subject area. The proposed curriculum changes for A level study do appear to be a positive move and would allow students the space to grow and develop their confidence within the subject prior to their summative assessments. However, it would not be appropriate to make changes to the way we approach KS5 teaching and learning strategies without fully understanding how the students learn now.
In addition to my regular subject teaching I have recently taken on a school impact role to improve the attendance within the 6th form. Through observing behaviours of our 6th form students across the range of subject areas it would appear that the level of motivation in this phase of their education is quite varied. Even though I have a particular interest in how student attitudes to their work differs within creative subjects as they progress into 6th form, it has been interesting to see the wider context in which my research has been placed. The recent Ofsted inspection in the autumn term of 2013 highlighted how important it is for us to understand how to support the students in the learning at this phase in their education. It was particularly noted that students within the 6th form were being supported in their learning and that the standard of teaching had significantly improved, however, in a lot of cases across a range of subjects (including my own), students were still not achieving their target grades (Ofsted: Nov2013.) The observations made by Ofsted as well as my own perceptions of the way that students approach their KS5 studies has further confirmed the need for conducting research in this area. By delving deeper into the issue and researching the underlying reasons for the lack of attainment and change in students attitude to learning as they continue into KS5, a more informed support package could be offered. There are numerous changes due within the education system as a whole that will directly impact on the way that 6th form students are taught and assessed. Using my previous experience with the use of student voice as a research method, I think it is essential that we fully understand how the students feel about their experiences in relation to their 6th form studies to ensure that we can fully support them in achieving their potential in an increasingly competitive education system. With this in mind, I would like to pose the following questions for my research study:
- How do students manage their KS5 study compared to the way they learnt at KS4?
- What approach to learning do students prefer?
- What do students enjoy about their options at KS5?
The Research Outcomes
The students were asked to reflect on different aspects of their 6th form experience. An overview of the research findings is below:
Looking at student workload
After the initial teething problems with students not feeling able to fully express their opinion because of the restrictions of the Appreciative Inquiry method, the written reflections provided additional insight into the students opinions of their studies. Participants were asked to reflect on the way that they felt about their workload as they began their year 13 phase of their courses as well as the way they prefer to complete their work and how they felt about the 6th form transition process. Comments were wide ranging in some cases but seemed to further clarify the visual imagery produced by the students within their illustrated reflections. On discussing the workload attached to their year 13 studies, students commented:
“Certain subjects have so much work to be completed, even in a week. I don’t have enough time”
“I thought I could manage, now I’m not so sure”
“I don’t know, I feel like I’m working harder, but I feel pressed to do better because of last year.”
“I feel like it is hard, there is a lot of work and it is sometimes hard to keep up. The workload hasn’t really changed since last year though.”
The overwhelming feeling of pressure and negativity attached to the reflections sampled above does demonstrate why the students felt restricted when asked to reflect in a positive way initially. Even though I wanted to gather constructive data to inform positive changes for the future, it would seem that the participants struggle to feel positive about their workload at KS5. This demonstrates why is was important for me to lift the limitations on the content of the participants reflections and allowed them to simply record what they feel, rather than just recording the positives.
Transition from KS4-KS5
When reflecting on their transition process, students commented on the structure of the school transition programme. It is important to note at this stage that the participating group are made up of a collection of students from 2 secondary schools with a combined 6th form:
“Before we started in September we had a couple of lessons in July. This gave us an insight into how the course would be. However the transition then in September was very quick.”
“A good thing about the start of year 12 and the transition process was the couple of lessons before the start of the year to see what it was like, this made starting Year 12 less scary.”
“The good thing about moving to year 12 was studying the subjects that interest me, and fewer subjects to worry about. Also the independence, being in year 12 you gain a lot more independence than in KS4.”
Generally the participants were all in agreement that staying on into 6th form had been a positive choice and that they felt supported in their choices as they began their year 12 studies. This may seem at odds with the visual data created by students when reflecting on the same question, however, on looking closer at the nature of the images produced, students appear to have visualised their feelings about the workload and time management attached to progressing into 6th form rather than the transition process itself. The students written reflections on the transition process do support the visual data produced by students reflecting on their options choices for the 6th form (Fig 2.)
The best thing about 6th form
Even though I had eliminated the need to be fully positive within the written reflections, I still wanted the students to think deeply about 6th form in a positive way. Encouraging them to reflect on what they felt were the best things about their 6th form experience:
“The best thing about year 12 was learning all the new techniques that the course showed me in comparison to my GCSE.”
“The best thing for me about year 12 was the idea of having more freedom over what we chose to do, whilst also having the support of the teacher.
“The best thing about year 12 was learning new techniques”
There were lot of similarities between the comments made by the students. What was interesting was that they had particularly focussed on the best thing about their textiles lessons (my subject) even though it was not specifically asked for them to do so. This was possibly something that students had assumed should be the focus of their reflections – especially as they were completing their reflections within the textiles learning environment and in the company of the other participants at the end of their timetabled lessons? Even though this may seem to cause issues as the data produced has more of a bias towards my own subject, I think that the main ethos of the participants comments could be applied to any creative 6th form course. The general positives were focussed on the feelings of excitement at being introduced to new creative methods whilst being supported through their study by staff.
The difference in assessment style
When reflecting on the difference in assessment style and course structure between KS4 and KS5, students commented:
“I feel that with the style of learning in KS5 compared to KS4 you need to be organised.”
“Learning in KS5 compared to KS4 is a totally different experience as in KS5 you feel more mature, and teachers treat you completely differently than they did when you were in year 11; it changes over the space of 3 months”
“I found that the style of learning from KS4 to KS5 has changed in the way that you are more independent and this means you have to stay motivated, and not rely upon a teacher”
“Once I had a better understanding of the work itself, it was relatively easy to generate ideas and get things finished but the work load was far greater than that of KS4; I struggled a lot with this.”
The students were mostly in agreement that there was an increased need for independence and that a more mature attitude to their workload was needed in order to be successful. This is an interesting development within the reflection process as the students had mostly commented on ‘independence’ being a positive thing when discussing their thoughts on the transition process. Within some of these comments it is clear that maybe some students do struggle to manage their time effectively and be fully independent in their learning even though it may seem appealing initially.
The research methods also included gathering visual data from student participants and a series of interviews and focus groups to discuss in detail the ways that new support systems could be designed. The research model required participants to ‘dream’ about their ideal learning environment before then designing realistic outcomes as a group – this resulted in some interesting discussions as outlined below:
Discussion of Outcomes
This inquiry set out to explore ‘Why the study habits of 6th form students within creative subjects differs between KS4 and KS5’. The research was conducted following my own adaptation of an illuminative inquiry by using the main structure of the Appreciative Inquiry methodology to collect data to answer the following research questions:
- How do students manage their KS5 study compared to the way they learnt at KS4?
- What approach to learning do students prefer?
- What do students enjoy about their options at KS5?
How do students manage their KS5 study compared to the way they learnt at KS4?
One of the overwhelming themes from this inquiry has been that 6th form students are generally not able to manage their time effectively. This suggestion has been made not only by the participating students within the study but also by the participating teaching staff as well. The main difference between the style of learning from KS4 and KS5 is the need to be independent. This is not something that a student can learn over night, nor is it something that can be learnt on their own, it is something that needs to be gradually nurtured and perfected. The students seem to have developed a more mature attitude to their learning as they start their year 13 studies, however, it would be a greater benefit if this was a skill already in use at the start of year 12. It is apparent from the research that KS4 students do require a level of ‘spoon feeding’ in order to be successful. It is unclear as to the reasons for this although undoubtedly, the pressures on staff to get the students their target grades is likely to result in far more structured, prescriptive coursework to allow little room for error. Even though this would seem like a positive (it will achieve the target grades) it does little for promoting the students independence and preparing them for 6th form study. In some cases it may even provide the students with false hope by allowing them to achieve a higher grade than they would be capable of if they were to complete their KS4 studies in a more independent manner – allowing them to progress onto A level courses on the success of their KS4 but with little preparation for the sheer amount of work or quality needed to be successful. This issue would be resolved if the recommendations within the ‘Design and Delivery’ research phase for early transition to year 12 were adopted.
A concern raised within the review of the literature was that the students embarking on A level study as the reforms to the curriculum develop would need to be more independent and motivated to learn due to the more traditional linear style changes to assessment that are expected. If it is truly the case that students are already not managing their time effectively within the current system, this is something that is in need of attention. It may be the case that the modular assessment systems and the shorter time frame for the year 12 AS assessments at present do create a more pressured workload for students in the 6th form (just as it did when the curriculum 2000 system was reviewed 13 years ago.) However, there are students who manage to be successful and do manage their time effectively throughout their 6th form studies despite having the same increased pressures. The reasons for these students being able to manage their time better than others are endless, they could just be naturally more able to prioritise their workload, maybe they have a greater level of parental support or be more financially secure so do not need to spend time working outside of school. Regardless of the reasons, it is important to consider the needs of all students and improve the way that they manage their time and their coursework. It is clear from the reflections made by students that they prefer the more independent learning style of KS5 but struggle with understanding what is expected of them. This is further clarified by staff thoughts of year 12 attitude to learning. Considering the time constraints of the AS courses and the changes to learning styles within their new subjects, students feel overwhelmed by the new information at the start of their 6th form journey – even though they may not freely admit it themselves at the start.
It is clear from the research that students need a more carefully structured programme of transition to allow them to fully digest the new information in relation to their learning environment, new courses and in some cases new teaching staff too. Just as the discussions within the review of the literature, it is important to allow students to feel comfortable, informed and confident with their new pathway of learning so that they can be successful. This is even more important considering the fact that the setting for this research inquiry was conducted within is a joint 6th form that do not have collaborative learning opportunities lower down the age range. This is something that was recommended for change within the focus group sessions of the ‘Dream’ and ‘Design’ phases of the inquiry.
What approach to learning do students prefer?
The research findings particularly from the ‘Dream’ and ‘Design’ phases of this inquiry demonstrate that the students want to be able to complete more independent study within their free periods but do not feel that they presently have the facilities to do so. The level of practical work in particular within creative arts subjects in the 6th from does require a certain amount of commitment outside of timetabled lessons in order to complete work to a good standard. It is a possibility that a lack of suitable facilities results in students not completing work in free time, therefore giving the impression of poor work ethic. At present there is no particular designated study space within departments that students can use to work outside of their timetabled lessons, they need to compromise on their choice of environment by completing work at the side of a KS3 class being taught for example. Even though from a staff perspective, this offering would seem satisfactory, it is clear that students are not engaging with this and would prefer more exclusive study areas just for them.
An involvement in the process of assessment and structure of the course is also an essential. As with phases of learning lower down in their schooling, the inclusion of students in the assessment process usually results in them making more progress within their subjects. Although, with newer styles of learning, new examination boards and course requirements for each options subject at KS5 it is important that information is carefully communicated with students at regular points throughout their learning process. Students themselves suggested within their written reflections that ‘Once I had a better understanding of the work itself and how we were assessed it was relatively easy’ (Participant T: Discovery research phase.) I think that we underestimate how the students need time to adapt within each of their subjects as well as the way they settle into 6th form as a whole. Even students who had studied the subjects at KS4 suggested within their reflections that the workload and style of learning was quite different. This is probably to be expected considering that these students were from the partner school and had completed a different style of textiles course at KS4 compared to the course they were currently taking at KS5. If the anticipated A level reform in 2015 does transfer arts subjects back to a more linear two year qualification, students will have the benefit of having time to grow and adapt their learning styles within their new courses before the pressure of summative assessment. This considering the findings and reflections of students and staff within this inquiry, a two year linear A level would be my ‘Dream’ for change.
What do students enjoy about their options at KS5?
The reflections from the student participants suggested that the level of independence did make their 6th form subjects more enjoyable than KS4. The students particularly commented on their ability to experiment and explore different techniques within the subject. These comments were made in connection to their textiles course, although the same could be said of any arts course within the KS5 phase as one of the main assessment areas is the students ability to experiment with materials and processes. This demonstrates that the style of course is well suited to the students and their enthusiasm for the subject hasn’t been suppressed by the burden of assessment as the review of qualifications had suggested was the case within the literature.
The participants identified the feeling of support from teaching staff but with a sense of freedom. Students were aware that they were able to make a lot more choices about their learning when compared to their KS4 courses; this was seen as a positive on the whole. Within their reflections, students recognise the support systems that are in place for them within their A level courses and that they had a responsibility for making progress in their subjects rather than ‘just relying on the teacher’ (Participant E: Discovery research phase.). A surprising aspect of their discussions within the focus group sessions was the ‘Dream’ to have more staff to act as ‘Mum’ figures within the 6th form to ensure that they stay on track with their work. Even though I can clearly see the benefits from a staff perspective, I’m unsure that the wider 6th form community would agree with their idea. The later discussions regarding the ‘Design’ of improved systems made a more suitable suggestion of an increased involvement with parents and more regular use of review and appraisal from the start of the year to ensure that their learning was on track.
“Why do the study habits of 6th form students within creative subjects differ from KS4 level study?”
It would appear that it is not the study habits of our students that changes as they continue their learning within the KS5 phase of their education, but simply the expectations of the assessment and education system. Students are treated very differently during their KS5 studies compared with their previous experiences of learning at KS4. This causes issues with standards of work produced and motivation to complete work. Environmental factor are also responsible for the supposed change to students work ethic, a lack of time, space and facilities are also partly to blame. Students are aware of their need to be independent in their learning in order to be successful – they just have no experience of it previously.
The landscape of post 16 education is changing, we need to make sure that we fully equip students with the necessary skills and support to be able to manage their studies and to ultimately be successful.
Areas for further research
Through the initial review of the literature I discussed the imminent changes to the education system – in particular the reform to A levels expected in 2015. The impact of this inquiry and the recommendations for change should allow students to feel more supported in their learning as they progress through their 6th from studies.
An area for further attention would be to explore the climate amongst students after systems have been put in place to improve the way they are supported as well as reviewing the way the changes to the assessment systems have impacted on them. It is important to note that even though this inquiry has made recommendations in the most meaningful way possible by including the use of students as researchers within the inquiry, the education system is ever changing and we need to ensure that we monitor how it changes and how those changes impact on the students within it.
It will be interesting to see what the future (and the imminent A level reform) will bring…
Thanks for reading!