GCSEs contribute to a ‘bottleneck mindset’ among teenagers

In his speech earlier today at GDST Annual Conference in London, Director of Innovation & Learning, Dr Kevin Stannard:

  • Highlighted the findings of the first GDST Student Survey of almost 12,000 students aged nine to 18 on the subject of ‘What makes a great teacher?’
  • Acknowledged the importance of ‘authentic interaction’ between teachers and students – the most popular characteristic identified in the survey
  • Identified the KS4 ‘bottleneck’ where student’s mindsets switch from being ‘enthused learners’ to ‘exam exponents’
  • Recognised the vital role of creative subjects like drama, music and art as ‘pressure valves’ for students as they balance the competing pressures of exams and adolescence

The conference brought together heads, chairmen of governors, trustees and senior staff from the GDST’s 24 schools, two academies and head office, on the theme of ‘The heart and craft of teaching’.

Delegates also heard from Professor Guy Claxton, emeritus Professor of the Learning Sciences at the University of Winchester, Professor Alison Cook-Sather, Professor of Education at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges in the USA and a panel of GDST heads and students – all of whom addressed the issue of what makes great teaching.

Dr Kevin Stannard said:

“Students in Key Stage 3 tend to carry with them, from the later primary years, an appreciation of teachers who challenge them and give them scope to make choices and be independent. This happens again in the Sixth Form, with an additional focus on teaching that enthuses and inspires. But there appears to be a change of focus in Years 10 and 11.”

He added:

“In Key Stage 4, this ‘bottleneck’ is reflected in the greater relative importance that students place on [teacher] qualities like not pressuring them and understanding the pressures they are under. ‘Toolbox’ qualities – teachers who control the classroom, give good notes and structure lessons well – are also ascribed much greater importance at this stage of a student’s school career.”

Dr Stannard highlighted key findings from the survey including: 43% of students said ‘interaction between teachers and students’ is what makes a great teacher; 45% of students identified art, drama, music or PE as the subject they most look forward to. When asked why, 25% of respondents referenced the fact that it was ‘fun’.

He also highlighted the impact of GCSEs on student mindsets and the ‘pressure valve’ that creative subjects like art, music and drama can provide:

“The influence of the battery of external exams at age 16 effectively amounts to a distracting factor that forces students into a ‘learned helplessness’ that can involve a great deal of additional anxiety. Encouragingly, the survey also indicates that participating in subjects that could be classified as ‘alternatives’ to the largely sedentary academic subjects – art, performing arts, music and PE – can mitigate the effects of the bottleneck.”

Dr Stannard also confirmed the importance of listening to students to ensure their changing priorities are taken into account by schools in their curriculum and staff training programmes:

“The GDST places huge value on the student voice, as demonstrated in its long-established Student Council which provides insights on everything from the principles and values of a good education to equality, diversity and school uniform policy. The results of the Student Survey will be invaluable to inform future curriculum reviews and pedagogy.”

Download our infographic summarising the headline findings of the student survey.