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This article was first published on The Conversation on 8 August 2019.

Authors: Lars-Erik Malmberg and Andrew Martin (UNSW, Sydney)

For many students, pressure and expectation are just another part of the school experience. There is pressure to perform certain tasks, conform to uniform standards and to achieve one’s full potential. Then there are the expectations – that students will do their homework, turn up on time, and perform to the best of their ability.

Pressure is even higher when expectations are accompanied by threats of repercussions, teacher disappointment, low grades, or being reprimanded. Indeed, researchers have found that “controlling behaviour” from teachers is linked with lower student interest.

Although much research has focused on students’ motivation and the role of positive and nurturing expectations by teachers, not much is known about how students experience “pressure expectations”. Nor do we know much about how these pressure expectations happen in real-time, such as the tasks students “have to do” and the things their teachers “want them to do” – from lesson to lesson, day to day.

Our latest research has looked at just this and found that teachers’ pressure expectations can lead to students working harder – but that this increased effort comes at a cost to some students.

Under pressure

In our study, we asked 231 students in year five and six classes in UK schools, to report on their learning experiences once in each lesson, each day for one week. In each lesson, students reported on why they were doing the task at hand. The response options were, “I enjoyed it”, “I chose to do it”, and “I was interested in it”. These would be classed as “autonomous motivation” in that students themselves wanted to carry out the task. Students could also select “I had to do it” and “my teacher wanted me to do it”. These would be classed as “pressure expectations”.

Students also reported on how hard they were working, and how confident they felt about what they learned. Teachers reported how involved they were with each student in their class, detailing how much time they spent with each student, and how much attention they gave each student.

We found the higher the pressure expectations in a lesson, the harder students worked in subsequent lessons. But our research also found that students reported enjoying these lessons less – and felt less confident in that particular subject.

Our research also showed that if students enjoyed their tasks in the previous lesson of a particular subject, it seems teachers picked up on this and relaxed their pressure expectations in the following lesson. But this actually went on to have the effect of students then reducing their subsequent effort – demonstrating a somewhat complex and dynamic relationship between teacher pressure expectations and students’ effort, enjoyment and confidence.

Breaking free

Of course, realistically, some students might need a little bit of a push at times to get started, to get tasks done, or to work harder. But as our results show, too much pushing can lead students to feel demotivated or less confident. In the long run, a reasonable balance between pressure and reassurance seems desirable, otherwise exhaustion and disaffection could take over – which can eventually lead to lower academic performance.

Indeed, research shows that teachers who place less emphasis on the realities of deadlines, task completion, and expectations, and place more emphasis on students’ perspectives – so getting to know students, their values and thoughts – are able to better identify students’ needs, interests and preferences and provide meaningful learning goals by using relevant and enriched activities.

So instead of relying on controlling language, teachers should aim to provide understandable goals, frame upcoming lessons clearly and explain things concisely. Teachers would also benefit from acknowledging negative feelings in the classroom – telling students it’s okay to feel tired or nervous.

Teachers can also look to provide supportive reassurance in everyday interactions with students, using praise and encouragement to help students reach their full potential. All of which hopefully will help students to feel more supported and enable them to achieve their full potential in the classroom.

This article was first published on The Conversation on 24 May 2019.

Author: Dr Neil Harrison, Rees Centre.

After years of decline, school exclusions are on the rise again, according to official figures for the Department for Education. The Timpson review, carried out by former children’s minister Edward Timpson, also shows that children in care and other “children in need” are disproportionately likely to be excluded. This amplifies the educational disadvantages they already face.

There are around 75,000 children in care at any one time in England. Collectively, they have some of the lowest educational outcomes of any identifiable group for reasons that are complex and multidimensional. The 2016-2017 figures show they are five times more likely to have been temporarily excluded than other children. Children in need -– the wider group needing support from their local authority –- were nearly four times as likely to be temporarily excluded and twice as likely to be permanently excluded.

Among Timpson’s 30 recommendations, he argues that all teachers should be trained in attachment theory as a means of understanding and addressing behavioural issues in school. This isn’t the first time this has appeared in a government report, but it feels like momentum is building.

Indeed, there is growing evidence that one pathway to reducing exclusions is for schools to adopt an “attachment and trauma aware” approach. This has its origins in early studies emphasising how a child’s relationships with adults and feelings of safety guide their psychological development. More recent advances in neurobiology have revealed how adverse childhood experiences such as abuse and neglect impact directly on the structure of a young person’s brain.

There is now increased understanding as to how the legacy of trauma affects how young people experience the world. It particularly influences how they build trusting relationships, understand boundaries and manage their emotions. Childhood trauma can leave a long-lasting physical mark.

This is, of course, not to argue that these children are inevitably destined to be poorly behaved, nor that bad behaviour should be ignored or explained away. Attachment and trauma awareness is about action, not inaction – and about equipping people with knowledge and information to understand children who have experienced difficult circumstances.

Causes not symptoms

In 2015, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) explored the effectiveness of attachment and trauma awareness in supporting vulnerable children. Their assessment, based on research evidence from around the world, was unequivocally positive.

Inexplicably then, it has taken four years for attachment and trauma awareness to bubble onto the political agenda. Rather, the focus of government attention, strongly promoted by schools minister Nick Gibb, has been on a “zero tolerance” approach to behaviour. This manifests in strict rules, strong sanctions and even periods of isolation for minor transgressions. Crucially, given the recent rise in exclusions, it doesn’t seem to be working. This is perhaps unsurprising given its obsessive focus on symptoms rather than causes.

Between 2016 and 2018, the University of Oxford evaluated three local projects to train school staff in attachment and trauma awareness. In the main, staff and pupils reported improvements in well-being and behaviour, with most schools also showing rising attainment. Become, a charity for children in care, recently made attachment and trauma awareness its number one recommendation for how teachers can best support vulnerable children to thrive.

Transforming schools

The Attachment Research Community –- a charity working with schools –- collects case studies of schools that have been transformed through attachment and trauma awareness. The binding theme is a focus on ensuring that all staff, from headteachers to mealtime supervisors, are equipped to support young people to regulate their own emotions. They also typically make use of innovations like “chill out” rooms, nurture groups and “time out” cards to create a calmer environment for learning.

Hope School in Liverpool, which recently shared its new Ofsted report on social media, has been specifically commended for its attachment and trauma awareness:

Based on academic research you have developed a school that is sensitive to supporting pupils with attachment and complex trauma histories [and] removed reliance on external sanctions and rewards to control behaviour.

Ofsted’s report could not be clearer in its judgement. It concludes that “behaviour in school is exemplary and pupils make outstanding progress in their learning”. Specifically, “the emphasis [had] changed to understanding the internal reasons for behaviour”. In other words, attachment and trauma awareness works – even for already successful schools.

So with the current schools minister seemingly at odds with the former children’s minister (and now Ofsted), it remains to be seen how much longer the rhetorical “crackdown” on behaviour can survive. Education secretary Damian Hinds has accepted all 30 of Timpson’s recommendations on behalf of the government, albeit without firm commitments around teacher training. But, hopefully, attachment and trauma awareness is an idea whose time is finally coming.

Following publication of the Timpson Review of School Exclusion and the Government’s response on 7 May 2019, Deputy Director of the department’s Rees Centre, Dr Neil Harrison said “Edward Timpson’s wide-ranging report on school exclusions has once again highlighted that children in care and children in need are disproportionately likely to be excluded, amplifying the educational disadvantages that they face.

We increasingly understand that a vital ingredient in avoiding exclusions is for schools to adopt an attachment and trauma aware approach.  This seeks to understand the underlying reasons for young people’s behaviour with reference to adverse childhood experiences such as abuse and neglect.  Informed by the latest research in neuroscience, there is clear evidence that these impact on the development of human relationships and frame how young people experience the world.

We are delighted that the report makes specific reference to these approaches and hope that their use in schools will be extended as a result.  Given the strong evidence base assembled by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), it is perhaps slightly disappointing that the recommendations are not stronger.

More broadly, we hope that the renewed focus on behaviour – which is already being unhelpfully billed as a ‘crackdown’ in some parts of the press – will be research-led and challenge the ‘zero tolerance’ approaches adopted by some schools that just serve to marginalise vulnerable young people even further.  We also note that the report recommends steps to limit the powers of schools to exclude young people and we welcome these.

Finally, we welcome the report’s recommendation that attachment and trauma awareness should be integrated into initial teacher training, as well as into the professional development of senior leaders.  This is a very positive step and we are heartened that the Government has accepted the need to review the content, albeit without a firm commitment at this stage.”

The Rees Centre evaluated three attachment and trauma awareness projects between 2016 and 2018 in Bath and North East Somerset, Leicestershire and Stoke-on-Trent.  These studies broadly supported a focus on attachment and trauma in schools in order to improve behaviour and wellbeing, reduce absences and support learning and attainment.  Staff and pupils generally also reported that schools had developed a more positive and calm environment as a result.

Bath and NE Somserset Attachment Aware Schools Programme Evaluation report (pdf)

Leicestershire Attachment Aware Schools Programme Evaluation report (pdf)

Stoke on Trent Attachment Aware Schools Programme Evaluation Report (pdf)

Associate Professor Sandra Mathers has been successful in securing joint funding for a ground-breaking project that aims to enhance socially disadvantaged children’s language skills. The project will be jointly conducted with Professor Julie Dockrell (UCL Institute of Education) and Professor James Law (Newcastle University).

Social disadvantage is closely associated with language delay and language delay impacts on social emotional and behavioural development and the ability to access the curriculum. Four-year-olds from the poorest 30 per cent of neighbourhoods are 11% less likely than their peers to reach expected levels in language and communication and 9% less likely to reach the expected level in social and emotional development.

Awarded by the Nuffield Foundation the project, ‘Empowering staff to enhance oral language in early years’, seeks to embed effective practice in order to empower staff to support children’s oral skills. Taking place in the south east and north east of England, the project will begin in 2019 and run until the end of 2020.

For more information:

Members from the department will collaborate with Peking University (China) on the development of maths interventions for Chinese children. The collaboration was inspired by the Reasoning First programme, a programme developed by researchers from the department’s Children Learning Research group, to promote mathematical learning.

The interventions, which will be specially re-designed involve two weeks of intensive joint work taking place in Beijing, starting in September. The visit of four members of the research group –Terezinha Nunes, Peter Bryant, Deborah Evans and Susan Baker – to Beijing is being sponsored by Peking University to launch this collaboration. The Chinese team will be led by Professor Lei Wang, from the Psychology Department.

For more information about the Reasoning First programme, see here.



Article citing research conducted by Professor Pam Sammons (Professorial Senior Research Fellow)

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This report, from a recently completed research project lead by Associate Professor Maia Chankseliani (Comaparative and International Education), presents the results of the analysis of apprenticeship in eight countries: Australia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Finland, Germany, India, and South Africa.

The study used documentary analysis as its central methodological approach, citing, summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing and critically reflecting on existing literature and data produced by international organizations, government agencies, universities, and research institutions.

Apprenticeship plays an important role in supporting young people in the transition between school and work. Countries with large, well-functioning apprenticeship systems generally have lower youth unemployment rates because of the relatively smooth school-to-work transition mechanism that such a system ensures, as well as a smaller sized cohort of NEETs  (Not in Education, Employment, or Training).

This study makes a first-of-its kind attempt to compare participation in apprenticeship globally. Major problems are posed for international comparison by the unequal quantity and quality of data, both official and research, available. Data availability for apprenticeship internationally is more restricted and less reliable than for primary, secondary and tertiary (academic) education. In particular, comparable data are difficult to access, in part due to disparities in the definitions and measures employed by the international bodies when reporting on VET and apprenticeship. In addition, the terms used to define and refer to apprenticeship can disguise actual apprenticeship activity under a different name and vice versa.

There is a great diversity in apprenticeship organization, financing, institutional arrangements, and learning approaches in different countries. The apprentice demographic characteristics, as well as the differences in apprenticeship participation rates, indicate the varying degrees of appeal of apprenticeship to individuals and employers in the eight contexts. A fundamental assumption of the apprenticeship model is that there are benefits to both employers and individual learners.

For individuals, incentives to undertake apprenticeship may be linked to the process of learning as well as to the outcomes of that learning. The report examines two aspects of the process of learning that could motivate individuals to participate in apprenticeships – the appeal of learning through doing and the opportunities apprenticeships present for occupational socialization. The report also looks at two aspects of apprenticeship outcomes – the possibility of progression to employment or to additional education and learning while earning.

The analysis of incentives for employers shows a range of reasons related to their short-term interests and the needs of the production processes, technologies, and associated skills needs; longer-term benefits for the company’s staffing strategy; as well as the opportunity to make a contribution to the wider education and economic systems.

Despite all the factors that may serve as incentives for employers to offer apprenticeships, many firms seem to view apprenticeship arrangements as too costly, risky, and complex to justify the investment. Except for a few exceptions, such as Germany or Denmark, employers tend to be reluctant to invest in apprenticeship training, as they expect the broader E&T system – funded by individuals or the taxpayers – to produce appropriately-trained employees that they can hire using competitive pay strategies.

Firms are likely to invest more in recruitment and less in training if they are making decisions that are not coordinated with other firms. When firms are making decisions collectively, under the umbrella of chambers or associations, they are more likely to coordinate their skills investment strategies around collectively-beneficial outcomes linked to skills development as a common good, locally or nationally, for all those firms that are part of the given collective. Training apprentices is then viewed as a contribution to the ‘pool’ of talent for the sector. Countries that have not organically developed institutions for employer coordination and/or social partnership may face a relatively difficult task when seeking to expand apprenticeship provision. Such institutional structures, however, are historically determined within each country context, and are extremely difficult to construct from scratch.

Apprenticeship is often viewed as a panacea for a wide range of policy ills: unemployment, skills shortages and skills mismatch, social exclusion and economic problems. The most fundamental choice that currently confronts policy makers in countries with apprenticeship provision is the desired proportion (in terms of levels, occupations and learner volumes) of overall initial VET that apprenticeship is expected to cover. This choice is central because in some countries (including England and Australia) a policy discourse has developed wherein apprenticeship is sometimes seen as ‘the answer’ to what are often very vaguely or weakly specified policy issues.

Influencing the scale of policy expectations is central to achieving a realistic definition of who and what apprenticeship is for. In particular, what social and economic objectives is it assumed that apprenticeship is there to deliver, and how best is a balance between these two spheres of policy focus arrived at when there is a potential for tension between them? Any decision to afford priority to social inclusion objectives has far-reaching consequences, as there is then a potential tension between wanting apprenticeship to be seen (by employers, young people, parents and wider society) as a rigorous, high status route; and also wanting to try to deploy it as a mechanism for operationalising second chance, social inclusion goals for young people who have not flourished on the academic route and within mainstream schooling.

The fact that apprenticeship embraces learning within the workplace through a range of different on-the-job learning processes also means that apprenticeship policy needs to have a strong interest concerning the in-company capacity of the participating organisations to deliver high quality learning experiences. As a result, in most EU countries the national government offers support for training programs aimed at in-company trainers who are responsible for delivering the on-the-job elements of apprenticeship, and in some jurisdictions having appropriately trained trainers is a prerequisite before firms are allowed to take on apprentices. In other words, E&T policy and scrutiny extends into the firm and the workplace, which is a very different proposition from classroom based routes where policy need only be concerned with and regulate what happens within formalized educational settings.

See the final report here:

Chankseliani, M., Keep, E., & Wilde, S. (2017). People and policy: A comparative study of apprenticeship across eight national contexts (No. RR.9.2017). Doha, Qatar: World Innovation Summit for Education.

Article citing research lead by Associate Professor Maia Chankseliani (Comparative and International Education).

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Assessment in science at KS3 has changed significantly since the abolition of the KS3 SATS in October 2008 and the subsequent introduction of the Assessing Pupils’ Progress Strategy.

This project is carrying out case studies of school science departments who are partners in the department’s Internship Scheme in order to investigate to what extent the strategy has been implemented and to explore teachers’ perceptions of its effectiveness. The findings will inform future Science PGCE seminars about assessment and are also being written up for submission to Assessment for Education.

Research Director: Judith Hillier
Funding body: Oxford University Department of Education Research Committee