Abingdon’s teachers are highly qualified subject specialists and are united by their enthusiasm for their individual subjects. They also strongly believe in the transformative power of education and take great pride in playing their part in shaping young minds and preparing them for the challenges of the world beyond school.
We want pupils to feel that they have had a mental ‘work out’ in lessons, just as they have a physical one on the sports field, and to be very conscious of how their skills and knowledge are improving. To that end, lessons are characterised by a high degree of challenge, driven by inspirational teachers using a pedagogical practice based on established and successful methods blended with the most effective of recent teaching innovations.
Abingdon’s teaching was judged ‘excellent’ (the top grade) in our two most recent ISI inspections. However, we have no intention of resting on our laurels and a particularly distinctive feature of Abingdon is the strength of our commitment to the continuing development of our teaching practice. Leading this we have a Deputy Head (Teaching and Learning) whose main focus is on observing all of our teachers and coaching them into becoming even stronger practitioners. Abingdon has therefore established a strong culture within the school to promote self-reflection and teacher improvement. As educationalist Dylan Wiliam says, If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they aren’t good enough but because they could be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.
Stretch and challenge vs acceleration
Abingdon is a school that believes very firmly in stretch and challenge. However, this does not mean that we believe in ‘acceleration’ in the sense of putting pupils through exams early (e.g. sitting Maths GCSE in 4th year). In our opinion, that kind of acceleration promotes a focus on exam technique at the expense of instilling and embedding a proper understanding of a subject. Whilst it is perfectly possible to get groups of pupils to learn the necessary material to gain high grades in some exams at an earlier stage, they tend to forget that material quite quickly and the ‘force feeding’ approach often needed to achieve those early grades can have a long-term negative impact on a child’s enjoyment of that subject.
Stretch and challenge happens at Abingdon firstly through the lessons themselves. Teachers will choose appropriately challenging material to teach and our selection of GCSE and Sixth Form exam specifications are always driven by the question ‘What will challenge our pupils best?’ as opposed to ‘Which course does it seem easiest to get top grades in?
Some groups will also sit for an additional qualification in the same time as other groups, e.g. top Maths GCSE sets also sitting the Ad. Maths qualification and top mathematicians in Sixth Form taking Maths and Further Maths as one subject in the timetable.
Extension also happens through our vast range of academically-related Other Half clubs – there are too many to mention here so details are given in the Other Half booklet. Additionally, boys are academically extended via the EPQ in 6th form and the large number of competitions, challenges and Olympiads that we participate in. By having so much extension as part of the Other Half, we ensure that it is not just available to those who happen to be in higher sets, but open to all who wish to take up a challenge.
Teaching groups up to GCSE (5th year) are capped at 24 pupils and are often much smaller than this – the only exception is the top sets in Maths will have larger numbers. Practical subjects (Art, Drama, DT and Music) work in groups no bigger than 16. In Sixth Form, 16 becomes the high water mark for all subjects and, again, groups are very often smaller than this.
The consequence of these relatively small class sizes is that pupils are very well known by their teachers and strongly positive teacher-pupil relationships are established.
Educational research does not support the notion that setting or streaming by ability necessarily has the positive impacts on outcomes that people think it will, so it is an issue that needs to be treated with some caution and an awareness that there is no single answer that covers all settings and subjects.
Abingdon’s approach is to have some setting where the Head of Department expresses a preference and timetabling allows for it and we recognise that higher sets can move through core material more quickly and then go on to various forms of extension. However we also see that an anti-aspirational ‘bottom set mentality’ can be a problem in schools so have sought to avoid that. In French GCSE, for example, we have one top set and then mixed ability sets after that. In GCSE Maths, where we do set more strictly, the top end is extended with the Additional Maths syllabus but there are also some lower sets as small as 10 pupils, enabling the teachers there to change their teaching to a much more personal 1:1 style, which has been seen to have very positive outcomes.
In lots of areas of the curriculum, however, setting or streaming is not possible owing to the structure of the timetable. However it should be recognised that the ability range at Abingdon is relatively narrow and no-one should feel troubled by any particular set they find themselves in. We will always seek to teach at a strong pace, pushing pupils to achieve their best whatever class they may be in. The evidence of our results is that the top grades are by no means limited to pupils from particular classes – everyone has access to the highest grades whichever route up the mountain they’re taking.
We do believe that independent work (often in the form of ‘homework’ or ‘prep’) is of great value in the learning process. It can be used to consolidate and extend learning, to push forward a synthesis of ideas that demonstrates a comprehensive grasp and to encourage pupils to come prepared to a lesson with a bank of knowledge and thinking already covered so the lesson can focus on the discussion rather than imparting of material.
We do, however, try to keep the work expected outside of class to a manageable level. Therefore, pupils in Lower School might expect to have an hour’s homework per week day (c.10 hours per fortnight), Middle School pupils might expect to start with c.15 hours per fortnight in 3rd year, moving up to c.20 hours per fortnight in 5th year. Students in Sixth Form have the guideline that they should be spending in the region of 4 hours outside of lessons on each of their subjects each week. We keep holiday work to a minimum until pupils reach the Lent Term of 4th year, by which time we would expect them to begin spending some holiday time preparing for exams. In sixth form, students should be beginning to use some holiday time to push on with their own research and thinking around their subjects.
We recognise that many of our students have long commutes, so we try to ensure that there are times during the school day (and suitable places) for them to complete homework. In Lower School, for example, there is a supervised homework session between 4 and 5 pm for those not involved in Other Half on a particular day. For other year groups, most houserooms have a study space and there are plenty of other areas where pupils may study silently – in the library, for example or in the Yang Science Centre. Our long lunchtimes often offer a chance to get some study done and most will find not all of their 4.00-5.15pm slots are taken up with Other Half activities during the week, so can use that time to work before the buses depart.