Published on: 27 Mar 2013

When using attitudinal surveys, it may also be the case that some of the most important points to arise are not ones about whole-school issues, but rather new insights into individuals.

Pupils: the eye-witness to your school?

Students’ attitudes can influence their experience of education and have significant effects on their overall levels of attainment, as Ian Rowe and Jonathan Thomson explain.

Understanding the views of pupils – both collectively and individually – can help school leaders tackle serious underlying issues. Understanding pupils as individuals – identifying what matters to them – can also be the key to tackling issues of national importance, such as absenteeism. Figures from 2011 suggest that around 7% of children in England – about 450,000 pupils – were categorised as persistently absent, missing 15% of their lessons, or a month’s worth of classes over the school year.

The new Ofsted inspection framework says that: “inspections will give greater consideration to the views of parents, pupils and staff as important evidence”. It also places greater emphasis on pupils’ behaviour and attendance in recognition of how these two criteria are linked to pupil attainment.

Ofsted is also determined to understand the extent to which teachers enthuse, engage and motivate pupils, and teachers will be measured on how well pupils develop the skills that enable them to learn for themselves. Both these goals are only achievable if pupils’ views are taken in to consideration.

Pupil surveys

Arguably one of the most effective ways to gauge pupil opinion is through surveys - and there are two key types of pupil survey governors should be aware of:

  • A pupil perception survey offers an objective view of the school through the eyes of your pupils. These should be made compatible with your parental survey, enabling you to compare and contrast what pupils say about the school with what their parents think for all chosen criteria.
  • A pupil attitudinal survey provides more of a psychometric measurement of pupils’ attitudes towards themselves as learners and their attitude towards their school and its staff. Attitudinal surveys, such as the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) survey, can help to build a complete picture of a pupil’s motivations, strengths, anxieties and future learning behaviours, as well as pinpointing negative attitudes that might not otherwise be apparent. For example, PASS demonstrates a high correlation between students who have a low score in attitude to attendance and actual attendance a year later.

As well as listening to pupils’ views, governors will be expected to consider one other critical aspect of a child's education: the extent to which they are fulfilling their potential. Cognitive ability tests, carried out at various stages of a pupil’s school career, provide an ideal way of identifying potential. If a pupil’s potential doesn’t correlate with their attainment, the reason could well be that their attitude to themselves or their school is holding them back.

The top priorities for pupils

Pupils of all ages consistently rank their happiness as the single most important factor. That may not seem a startling observation but it has profound implications for schools and governors: when looking at school performance, scant attention is usually given to the happiness of children, but it often follows that schools that foster an environment where children will be happy can expect to deliver better learning outcomes.

Other important factors include the control of bullying, the security of the school and the school facilities. Secondary pupils also regard exam results as an important factor in how they feel about the school.

Overall, primary children tend to be more positive about their school than their secondary counterparts. Pupils’ attitudes towards their school typically decline the longer they are in education (except at post year-11 level).

By looking at attitudes across the country, an unexpected picture emerges of children whose emotions and attitudes indicate they may be categorised as vulnerable – by far the largest group of these children are boys. Girls, meanwhile, typically are more positive in all aspects we look at. The one exception is related to perseverance in the face of a challenge – here, gender makes little difference.

It may be easy to dismiss some trends as the unfortunate consequences of dealing with teenagers – for example, the fact that pupils’ attitudes towards their school typically declines the longer they are in education. The exception here is at post year-11 level, with students tending to be more positive about sixth forms. While it may be expected that the transition from primary to secondary school will be daunting for many pupils, understanding pupils’ attitudes can be the first step towards easing that transition.

The evidence has also shown how attitudes are changing. Over the years, there has been a significant national increase in pupils’ aspirations, which suggests that schools have a real opportunity to help children develop and reach their goals. Unfortunately, this trend has been accompanied by a decrease in pupils’ self-regard – which means teachers may find it more difficult to engage them.

Reporting on the results

Whatever approach you use to gauge pupils’ views, and whatever results those efforts produce, it’s important that the pupils get some feedback. Where schools have already established a school council, this provides an obvious forum for setting out the key findings of perception surveys.

Another approach is to use pupil focus groups, which can provide a platform for discussing the issues that have arisen from the surveys, as well as making pupils feel that they have a say in coming up with plans to tackle any issues that have emerged.

The key to a successful focus group is planning. Participants must have a clear idea in advance of what issues are likely to be discussed and those leading the group must have some objectives. It may be best to have different groups for different age ranges, so that younger pupils feel confident enough to contribute. It can be useful to set out guidelines, so that pupils understand how best to make their points, without talking over others.

When using attitudinal surveys, it may also be the case that some of the most important points to arise are not ones about whole-school issues, but rather new insights into individuals. For example, it may shed light on those pupils who do not misbehave in class but who have some emotional barriers to overcome. These ‘fragile learners’ might not be overtly challenging for teachers in terms of discipline, but through a better understanding of their needs, it may be possible to do more to help them fulfil their potential.

Acting on the results

By conducting pupil surveys, school leaders can quickly spot any gaps between those issues that pupils perceive as important, and how well they feel the school measures up. If schools are able to benchmark those results, they may also be able to spot other issues they need to tackle.

Subject teachers can also glean vital information from attitudinal surveys about their students’ learning preferences and attitudes towards themselves and their lessons, which may influence their lesson planning. Interventions can be put in place to address the most pressing issues, and then effectively monitored through repeat surveys. The data gathered can make a significant contribution to the school’s self-evaluation process and feedback to Ofsted.

At one comprehensive school, the use of attitudinal surveys revealed the progression of some pupils was being hindered by low learner confidence and perceived learning capability. A youth leader was brought in to run team-building activities and encourage children to take part in more extra-curricular activities. As a result, teachers observed an almost immediate improvement in confidence and communication.

Ian Rowe is general manager of Kirkland Rowell Surveys and a school committee member at Newminster Middle School, part of The Three Rivers Learning Trust

Jonathan Thomson is general manager of the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) attitudinal survey and chair of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) Special Needs Group

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