Growing grit: a plan that doesn’t involve the classroom

I believe that the most important time in school is in the classroom and that teaching and learning is at the heart of all school decisions. However, I am also an advocate of extra-curricular provision and outdoor education, in particular the ability of expeditions to develop personal attributes in young people. Indeed, my own experience of education was shaped and saved through the Air Training Corps rather than anything that happened within the school’s walls. It may not be fashionable not to champion a narrow range of research-backed teaching and learning methods, but I believe that schools are far more than teaching and learning factories.

It’s from this experience that I have never advocated that schools, individuals or government can teach character, nor grit, nor mindset. What we can do through is create the conditions in which grit can be grown. In other words, modelling grit and resilience ad providing opportunities for young people to overcome difficulty. Bearing in mind that for some students, having to endure five years of secondary schooling just to get to the examination hall is an exercise in grit in itself.

In a nutshell, young people are humans before they are students. If that’s all wishy washy and not traditional enough for you, off you go. I don’t mind. However. I am privileged to work with a brilliant team of teachers that do wonderful things. But, poor attendance remains a key barrier to learning as does keeping the motivation of key groups of students focused on performing well at GCSE. (Before you start we are driven by doing the best for young people, but we do have to balance the demands of  external accountability with that. If we get that wrong, then the school risks losing the freedoms that accompany a certain grading).

Internal research, funded through the pupil premium grant, has suggested that:

  • participation in extra-curricular activities improves attendance amongst disadvantaged students.
  • students identified as having low levels of grit, perform worse than similar attaining peers.
In addition, the benefits of extra curricular and outdoor learning, whilst not enjoying wide research support, there are publications that support residential and out of classroom experiences in particular. Some may argue that that’s teaching and learning too and, as an outdoor instructor for around 20 years I’d agree. However, schools are concerned mainly with formal learning that happens at a particular time and place and within a set location, often exploring a set curriculum  and striving toward distilling a defined set of learning outcomes. Extra curricular and outdoor learning is less formal and develops a different set of knowledge skills and understanding. 
This year we are using the results of the research to develop school policy ( We don’t do action research that doesn’t actually lead to action). One of the solutions has been to create a grit and resilience coordinator in partnership with the fantastic team at Albion in the Community (AITC), the charity linked to Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club.  You can view the job advert here.  It’s an exciting and unique opportunity where one of AITC’s staff will be working full time in our school, with the express mission to engage disadvantaged students in programmes of extra curricular activities. It’s attracted some positive attention from the local paper too.
We are hoping that increased engagement will result in better attendance. This means that students are more likely to benefit from our already fantastic teachers and therefore the outcomes will increase. We hope to work with the Brilliant Club to use some of their online tools for measuring non-cognitive attributes of students and focus on a core group of young people from Year 7,8 and 9. You see, I know that focusing long term will improve their outcomes. Establishing good habits early on is far more effective than ploughing intervention into exam years, where the damage is difficult to overcome. 
In addition, we’ll be working with the brilliant team at humanutopia in order to establish a cross phase peer-mentoring scheme, but more on that another day.
In summary, my focus for many years has been on teaching and learning and I do believe that that remains the main focus of a school. However, just as we had to develop a effective and appropriate curriculum at Priory Geography before we started to teach inspirational lessons that had impact, sometimes we need to ensure that the barriers to learning are tackled so that young people can access great teaching and learning. Sometimes, I’ve lost confidence because some have argued that tackling disadvantage is a teaching and learning issue. However, having looked at publicly available data, the differences don’t seem significantly small, the school’s performance significantly better than similar schools nor the impact of their pupil premium spend particularly innovative. Therefore, the issue must lie beyond the classroom. It reminds me of conversations around improving behaviour. It’s simple really: just teach better lessons and they will behave.  Really? There’s no need to a school wide system to effectively improve behaviour for learning?
Keep a look out here to see how this goes. I should point out that this is one small part of our pupil premium spend, and we are on a one year mission to make this work.  Get in touch if you have any questions and I’d be interested in reaching out to any schools that already take a similar approach. 

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