Challenging Schools- what can we learn from the PGCE trainee perspective?

Corinne Greaves and Heidi Long


Working as school partnership coordinators in the Graduate School of Education we have a strong idea of what the term ‘challenging school’ means to us (not least because we are encouraged to provide trainees with experience in challenging schools during their PGCE), however we are aware that how trainees perceive challenging schools could be quite different and that this might affect their desire to be placed in one. We rely on socioeconomic measures such as Free School Meals and Pupil Premium to identify those schools in challenging circumstances and we know the DfE use Ofsted grades as a measure of challenge (though this is not without issue).

The planning of a new project aimed at encouraging PGCE trainees into rurally isolated challenging schools provided the opportunity to think about exploring what challenge means to our trainees, and what might motivate them to train or work in them. Through a questionnaire to our 19/20 cohort, followed up by focus groups and individual interviews we asked trainees how they defined a challenging school, and if they would like to train or work in one. The initial definition from trainees threw up the expected -Ofsted grade was mentioned many times, as was behaviour, but the most overriding factor for trainees was socioeconomic disadvantage. Through Primary and Secondary focus groups we interrogated the perceptions of challenge and discussions ranged from a challenging school being a bleak place where ‘it was almost certainly raining’ with behaviour issues and tight safeguarding controls, to a place where motivated teachers would go above and beyond for their pupils enabling them to succeed despite their circumstances. Trainees were anxious not to make assumptions about pupil behaviour or attendance though they felt this would be linked to areas of high socioeconomic disadvantage, the factor that they felt was key to defining a challenging school.

Of the 61 trainees responding to the original questionnaire, more wanted to train or work in a challenging school than didn’t (using likert scaling). This was interrogated through 1:1 interviews with volunteers to further understand the motivations behind this scoring. Trainees who wanted to work or train in challenging schools nearly all gave ‘making a difference’ as their prime motivator. Interestingly in the focus groups trainees had talked about demotivation as a personality trait exhibited by some teachers rather than the result of exposure to a difficult working environment. For them a motivated person would want to work in a challenging school to help those pupils most in need, so it is not surprising perhaps, that their strongest motivation was to make a difference. We asked about anything that would worry them about working in a challenging school, and they discussed not being experienced enough to make a positive impact, that they felt the workload would be higher and they were concerned about behaviour management. There was a common theme during the interviews that being in a challenging school would be more difficult and have a higher workload. For this reason, there was some reluctance to be placed in one, or to work in one early in their careers. Some felt it could impact on their own performance during training so therefore impact on their grades. Even the most motivated trainees showed some reluctance to apply for NQT positions challenging schools as felt they needed to ‘learn how to be a good teacher first’.  They thought to address some of these concerns schools should have strong mentor support for trainees (and teachers).

This was a study to one cohort of trainees carried out alongside the promotion of a new project so some of the answers they provided were specifically related to placements in a particular region, however we can see that of the trainees involved most feel that a challenging school is one where the pupils come from underprivileged backgrounds and their motivation for working in these schools is so that they can make a difference. They really do want each of their lessons to ‘shape a life’. This is affirming to hear about our prospective teachers, but it is also important to note that many had worries and concerns, and if we are to support our trainees to train successfully in challenging schools, so that they may one day take a job in an area where they really can make a difference, we need to ensure the right support mechanisms are in place.


DfE (2020) Initial teacher training (ITT): criteria and supporting advice

Available at:

DfE (2018) Analysis of teacher supply, retention and mobility. Available at: (2017)

Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: A plan for improving social mobility through education. Ref. Cm 9541. Available online at: (2016).

Educational Excellence Everywhere.Ref. Cm 9230. Available at

DfE TV campaign 2020, ‘Every lesson shapes a life’

BERA School Research Grant

BCF Curriculum Investigation Grant – Now Open

The BCF Curriculum Investigation Grant is intended to support research led by schools and colleges’ with a focus on curriculum inquiry and investigation. The grant will be launched for the academic year 2020/21, and is worth up to £5,000 for the winner, with £3,500 for two other grants, for a total of £12,000. The amount of grants awarded is dependent on the number and quality of applications received. We would expect the grant work to be carried out in the 2020/21 academic year with the final report being submitted by September 2021.This prize, awarded biennially, acknowledges the importance of research led by schools and colleges.Applications must make clear how the grant will enable applicants to do the following:Identify an issue impacting on the development of an aspect of the curriculum in their school/college;Design, implement and evaluate a response to the issue identified;Disseminate the processes and outcomes of the inquiry/investigation within the school/college;Develop a strategy to sustain curriculum investigation/inquiry within the school/college;Contribute to research and scholarship in the study of the curriculum;While it is possible that the applications will include collaborative partnerships with HE institutions we are keen to support schools and colleges led research and therefore ask the primary applicant to be based in a school or college.Deadline for applications: Friday 19th June 2020

The Impact of School Closures

The Centre for Research in Social Mobility at Exeter has created a set of surveys to explore the impact that school closures are having on students, parents, teachers and admissions/widening participation professionals. The surveys are targeted at these different groups, with the first question taking respondents to the correct survey; each should only take around 10 minutes to complete, and we are donating to ChildLine for completed surveys.

If you are a parent of a school-aged child, a teacher or someone who works in admissions or widening participation, please consider taking part:

Student Voice

Could conventional, democratic, approaches to student voice be undermining pupil’s engagement with school?

I spent a year observing pupils in a South West school and found they had good relationships with teachers when there was mutual recognition of the issues faced by both parties. Student voice works best when pupils understand the role of their teachers. Children know teachers run the school and are in charge. But they also feel the school should be run in their interest, and they should have a share in decision-making. There is a danger that if they don’t feel they are listened to they will exercise their voice in a negative way, by not complying with rules.

Schools must do more than only pay lip-service to student voice. They should do more to really listen to pupils. Children know very well that they hold the power to be disruptive, and teachers should to more to work with them to use this power in a constructive, rather than disruptive way. My research suggests good relationships with teachers is more important than any mechanisms to introduce an element of democracy such as student councils, which are not sufficient to promote student voice. Just creating democratic structures isn’t an effective way for the voice of students to be heard. The quality of relationships is the foundation of effective voice. Students need to recognise and be recognised. The perception of student councils is often that they are easily co-opted into simply following the agenda of a school’s senior leadership and this often leaves pupils disengaged, choosing to exercise their voice through non-compliance instead.

Efforts to increase “student voice” in schools need to be better organised to give children a genuine chance to have their say. Teachers should focus on working on a smaller scale in order to provide different ways for pupils to air their views in a positive way.

Non-compliance as a substitute for voice is published in the journal Research Papers in Education. To read the full article (for free if you are one of the first 50 people to use the link!) go here:

Tom Ralph is Senior Lecturer in Education, Subject Leader Secondary Mathematics PGCE and PGCE Secondary Programme Director at the University of Exeter:

Event: Exploring Data Analytics in Schools

See above for a free day event at the Met Office in Exeter, exploring how schools can use data analytics.

Analysing data is one of the most important skills in our society, and in this half-day conference we will provide innovative ideas for teaching data analytics in schools. This includes workshop sessions where we will share our experience of teaching data analytics and demonstrate our newly developed toolkit. Further our partners in the Met Office will reflect on the importance of data analytics skills to their own industry and to the Future of Work in general.

This half-day event will showcase free new teaching materials developed in partnership with colleagues in Spain and Turkey and developed in partnership with the ERASMUS+ strategic Partnerships Programme.


Metacognition: What’s all the fuss?

by Shirley Larkin.

What does metacognition look like? And how can we facilitate it?

Try a thought experiment. Turn your mind to think about your own memory. Is it a good memory? Can you compare it to someone else’s? Can you compare within yourself eg. I have a good memory for faces but not for names. Ask yourself how you remember best. Does it depend on what you are trying to remember. Think about short term and long term memory. Don’t conjure up a memory, just focus on memory itself. When you have had enough come back to reading.

If you did the above you have just experienced the shift in thinking we call metacognition. Metacognition is thinking about our own cognitive processes. So we turn our thoughts inward to what is in our mind rather than what is in the world.

The cognitive processes are: thinking, knowing, believing, guessing, imagining, remembering, understanding, attention, concentration, perception.

But of course we can’t see people make this shift in thinking. We can only interpret what people are thinking from what they say or what they do. So if we want to develop better metacognition in the classroom we need to provide activities that require students to shift their thinking to the meta-level. We also need to have some way of being able to see this shift happen.

We know that activities that are complex, open-ended, with no one right answer, which are novel and authentic are more likely to require this shift in thinking than simpler, familiar and repetitive tasks. We don’t need to be metacognitive all of the time. Tasks become automated for a reason eg consider reading, driving, walking. But making decisions, taking account of different perspectives, solving complex open ended problems do require a shift in thinking. We can use our metacognitive knowledge of how we think best to help us with such tasks. We can also monitor our progress and where necessary change the way we are thinking, drawing on strategies that we know have helped us in the past.

So to facilitate metacognition we first need to provide the right kinds of activities. Secondly we need to show students what metacognition is by modelling it. Thirdly we need to equip students with the language to talk about their own thinking. Fourthly we need to consider the classroom environment and turn it into a space where the focus is on good thinking rather than only good answer.

Biography: Dr. Shirley Larkin is a senior lecturer at Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter. She has researched metacognition since 1999. You can see her profile and contact information here, if you would like to get in touch:

Shirley researches and writes about metacognition, self-regulated learning and thinking skills extensively. For a recent publication written for primary school teachers see Metacognition, Worldviews and Religious Education.

Prof. Daniel Mujis on the Research Behind Ofsted’s New Inspection Framework

On 18th October we welcomed Ofsted’s Head of Research, Daniel Mujis, to talk about the concept of ‘quality of education’, discussing research into pedagogy, teacher effectiveness and how this relates to student outcomes – but also how these are insufficient indicators of quality of education.

He discussed the wide body of research into the concept of ‘teacher effectiveness’ – which is often cited e.g. by this Sutton Trust document. This an excerpt from one of Daniel’s slides:

  • There is clear evidence that the effectiveness of individual teachers has a significant impact on student outcomes. Explains up to 75% of classroom level variance in pupil performance
  • If one takes two pupils with identical background (SES, gender, …) and test scores at beginning of year, the pupil taught by the most effective teacher will score 25% higher at the end of the year than the pupil taught by the least effective teacher (Muijs & Reynolds, 2001).

We also know that the quality of teaching is more important for pupils disadvantaged by socioeconomic background, for lower achieving pupils and for pupils at risk.

Of course, trying to pin down exactly what characterises ‘effective’ teachers is more problematic. Teaching is obviously a dynamic, interpersonal process which resists simple quantification. However, there are some clear indicators of what ‘effective practice’ might look like which highlight the particular benefits of: direct instruction, metacognition, classroom climate and relationships (warm but learning-focused), feedback and assessment (how do we make sure that assessment is built into and informs learning, that feedback is effective).

Recognising the deformative impact that Ofsted has previously had on school performance measures (creating ‘Ofsted’ lessons and criteria matched closely to perceived Ofsted grading criteria), Daniel went on to discuss why focusing simply on pedagogy – as the research discussed above does – is not sufficient when considering quality of education. Instead, he argued, we need to consider not only howsomething is taught but also whatis taught. Here’s another excerpt from his slides:

  • What if we use good pedagogy, but don’t have good subject knowledge?
  • What if we use good pedagogy to teach harmful content?
  • What about what happens outside of the classroom?
  • What do lessons mean in isolation?
  • Can we effectively teach poor content?
  • There is a relationship between teacher subject knowledge and teaching behaviours/strategies
  • But we can teach poor content well!
  • What do we need to do to ensure the what, as well as the how of teaching are addressed?
  • What if we teach harmful content?

Daniel discussed how the interaction between what happens in the lesson and outside the classroom is also important, and also the limitations of observing a snapshot of learning in a single lesson, and the importance of how learning builds in sequences over time. All of this, was used to justify and explain the Ofsted focus on the curriculum – why curriculum matters.

He also touched on the contested issue of ‘cultural capital’ – offering these views…

Cultural capital:

  • The symbolic elements (knowledge, tastes) we possess, and typically share with others
  • Provides us with more or less access and social mobility in a stratified system
  • Cultural capital is not equally shared, but valued forms are more present in some social groups than in others
  • Education can help to provide what is not present in the home, which can help provide social mobility

But we will write about Cultural Capital in a separate post…

Curriculum views and debates

The current focus on the notion of ‘curriculum’, what ‘curriculum’ means, ways of understanding and designing curricula and ‘knowledge’ shows no sign of abating. If you feel the need to broaden your perspectives two online publications are particularly useful:

  1. Here we have a special edition of the BERA Blog (views from the British Educational Research Association) on ‘Reimagining a curriculum for teacher education’. Blog posts are a maximum of 500 words so these are short opinion pieces which often link to research articles. This is my personal favourite – ‘What do teachers need to know to be able to teach‘, questioning assumptions around the relationship of theory and practice.
  2. This special edition of Impact, the journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, includes slightly longer (but still short and accessible) articles again offering a range of provocative views. Here’s the opening of Christine Counsell’s article (one of many in this edition which are open access), “Curriculum is all about power. Decisions about what knowledge to teach are an exercise of power and therefore a weighty ethical responsibility. What we choose to teach confers or denies power. To say that pupils should learn ‘the best that has been thought and said’ is never adequate. Start the conversation, and questions abound: ‘Whose knowledge?’; ‘Who decides on “best”?’”

Research-Practitioner Partnerships: the ‘best’ educational research?

 In August I was lucky enough to attend the conference of the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction ( One of the most thought-provoking presentations was given by Judy Parr and Rebecca Jesson from the University of Auckland, who were reflecting on the lessons they’ve learned from fifteen years of research. The focus was on how to create research-practitioner partnerships between universities and schools which made the most of the different experience held by researchers and teachers, and they placed particular emphasis on the trust that needs to be built between the different partners.

There is a strong DfE drive at the moment to ensure that teaching is ‘evidence informed’ (see this report from 2017). There is a plethora of labels for how teachers might engage with evidence and research: evidence-based, research-led, research-informed, research-inspired – all with individual nuances but all getting at the idea that as teachers we should be drawing on, selecting from and using available evidence to support and develop our teaching. Parr and Jesson’s work takes this notion of the evidence or research-engaged teacher further, highlighting that research should take place with schools not just in schools.

Their projects have all placed teachers at the heart of the research process – not seeing them as just research participants, but as true partners in the research, involved at all stages. They have identified seven key ‘decision points’ for such partnerships:

  1. Negotiating a shared focus – deriving research questions that identify common concerns and address the needs of both partners
  2. Devising pragmatic yet robust research designs to answer those questions
  3. Selecting or designing ‘smart’ data collection tools and processes particularly for assessment of student learning and classroom practice
  4. Analysing and interpreting findings of initial and ongoing data, engaging with teacher’s theories and interpretations
  5. Deciding on the focus of interventions or changes of practice
  6. Monitoring outcomes
  7. Sustaining widespread adoption – ensuring understanding of the essence of effective practices.

Of course, this approach to research in education has major practical implications in terms of teacher time. Few teachers currently have the space and energy to learn about and develop research projects alongside the intensive everyday demands of teaching. Parr & Jesson benefitted from generous national funding which provided release time for teachers, as well as payments to allow travel, conferences and events which brought teachers together to explore these issues. This is all at the polar end of the spectrum of research-engagement to the front piece of the EEF Toolkit with it’s completely decontextualized, unnuanced summary of evidence (which is not to say that the more detailed EEF reports aren’t useful). It’s also fundamentally opposed to the preferred ‘Randomised Control Trial’ approach, which requires teachers to be ‘blind’ participants rather than active partners. However, if we agree that ‘evidence-informed’ or ‘research-inspired’ teaching is important, and that teachers should engage with research deeply and critically, I think I would be hard pressed to define a better model than that offered by Parr and Jesson. The problem now is finding funding which will allow us to do it!

But what do you think?

  • Should this kind of research participation be a priority for schools?
  • If so, which teachers or school leaders should be involved?
  • Is this requiring too much of teachers, expecting them to go beyond their core remit?
  • Have you benefitted as a teacher from conducting your own research?


See more about Parr and Jesson.

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