How measuring attitudes can boost attainment

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What is attitudinal surveying? And how can it be of benefit to local authorities, schools, teachers and individual pupils? Here, Dr Glen Williams, Chief Executive Officer of W3 Insights, explains.

As a teacher, would you like an insight into any obstacles that are blocking the path for your pupils to maximise their attainment? Would you like to be able to predict accurately which pupils in your class are most likely to stop attending class? Would it help you to find a solution if you knew why a child always messed about in class? What about being able to differentiate between the root causes of disruptive behaviour in two children, even though the actual behaviour might be very similar?

If you answered a resounding ‘yes’ to these questions, you’ll understand some of the reasons why attitudinal surveys have been gaining popularity in schools up and down the country for some time.

In Manchester, more than 50 of the city's schools now test every child annually, aiming to boost the 4As - attendance, achievement, attitudes and aspirations. In the South West, Devon County Council recently announced plans to start regular surveys in all its schools, starting with those taking part in the Targeted Mental Health in Schools programme. In total, around 3000 schools in the UK have completed audits and used the results to improve attendance, behaviour and ultimately exam results.

So what is attitudinal surveying? And how can it be of benefit to local authorities, schools, teachers and individual pupils?

The ABC of Attitudes
Pick up virtually any psychology textbook on ‘Attitudes’ and it will include the ABC definition – Affective, Behavioural, Cognitive. In other words, attitudes are formed by and affect how we feel, what we do and how we think. Attitudes are judgments and, in a school setting, a student’s attitudes to learning can influence their whole experience of education and have significant effects on their overall levels of attainment.

At Royal Manor Arts College, a state school on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, two children who had exhibited similar disruptive behaviour completed attitudinal surveys and the results showed completely different causes. One pupil had low self-worth, while the other had a poor attitude about attending school. ‘It was the same behaviour, but we had to deal with it in different ways,’ said Graeme Sawyer, the teacher who brought in the system. By understanding what is really going on in a child’s head, teaching strategies can be adjusted to maximise learning.

Attitudinal surveys are specifically designed to measure a set of core attitudes that will only change when something major happens.  So whereas clothing and music tastes change on a week-by-week basis for young people, a core attitude is much more stable. Regularly assessing these attitudes can help build a complete picture of the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. Results can be collated to reveal whole class and entire school learner climate, and broken down to show how the school compares nationally as well as by gender, ethnic categories and year groups. In this way, the surveys can offer valuable insights into any trends that are emerging over time and/or region.

Unexpected Trends
Some of the national trends can be very unexpected. Many people are surprised that the most vulnerable groups of children in terms of emotions and attitudes are white boys. Girls are more positive in all aspects except perseverance in the face of challenge, where there is no significant gender difference. Where you live also makes a difference. Pupils from the north of England have the warmest relationships with their teachers while those in the south east are more likely to have better study skills.

Sadly, research also suggests that the longer children are in the education system the more negative their attitudes become. The exception is post-Year 11, when there is a slight upturn in attitudes. In the sixth form, attitudes tend to be more positive as young people have made the conscious decision to continue with their education. You might expect a dip in Year 7, as many children find the transition from primary school to secondary school difficult, but finding out the reasons why – for example, feeling alienated – is the first step in doing something about it. After all, it is perfectly possible to buck the trend and attitudinal surveys can be instrumental in bringing this about.

One of the interesting aspects of measuring attitudes is that you are able to pick up on mind-sets that will negatively affect behaviour in the future. Attitude to attendance, for example, can accurately predict what the real situation will be twelve months down the line. Often, the first a school knows about a problem is when a child stops turning up to class but it is possible to pick up the early warning signs and intervene if necessary. Attitudes can be changed. In fact they are expected to change as a function of experience.

Assessing Attitudes
A pupil assessment of attitudes will typically look at factors proven to be significantly linked with key educational goals, such as feelings about school (‘My teachers tell me when I have done something well’) or self-regard (‘I am clever’).

‘Preparedness for learning’, for example, is a factor highly correlated with learning and behavioural difficulties in the classroom. A student without the necessary study skills is more likely to mess around in class so the statements related to this encompass study skills, attentiveness, powers of concentration and emotional responses to learning demands. Identifying a lack in preparedness for learning gives schools both an explanation for this type of behaviour as well an angle to focus targeted study support. One primary school that identified a weakness in this area as a basis for targeted intervention, went from 20 short term exclusions to none in a very short space of time.

Key Learner Attitude Dimensions
Feelings about school. What is sometimes called ‘ School Connectedness’.Can indicate feelings of social exclusion and also potentially bullying. 
Perceived Learning Capability. Offers a snapshot of a learner’s unfolding impressions of self-efficacy and can reveal early warning signs of demoralisation and disaffection.
Self regard. Equivalent to self esteem but more focussed specifically on learning and therefore has a greater correlation with achievement.
Preparedness for learning. The questions prompt young people to ask themselves, ‘Do I have the tools to do the learning job?’
Attitudes to teachers. A student’s perception of the relationships they have with the adults they work with in school. 
General work ethic. The motivation to succeed in life. It is about purpose and direction, not just at school but beyond.
Confidence in learning. A measure of perseverance in the face of challenge. Does a student see themselves as giving up at the first hurdle or do they see themselves as having ‘stickability’?
Attitudes to attendance. Highly correlated predictively with an individual’s actual attendance. 
Response to curriculum demands. A second motivational measure, focussing more narrowly on motivation to undertake and complete tasks set within the school’s curriculum. 

At Castell Alun High School, a mixed comprehensive secondary school in Flintshire, they put a stop to attitudes that were hindering some children’s progression by identifying two factors which were significantly lower than in other students – learner confidence and perceived learning capability. 30 students across a mix of years were targeted and a youth leader was brought in to run sessions including team building activities and ‘ice breakers’, to improve communication and self esteem. The result was that many students became more involved in the school community, joining various clubs and extra-curricular activities, and teachers observed an immediate improvement in confidence and the ability to communicate with others.

Natural Complement
With limited resources at so many schools disposal and the pressure on to close the attainment gap, teachers need to decide how to prioritise targeted support. Measuring and ranking attitudes is a natural complement to more traditional, ‘harder’ types of assessment and is a particularly rich source of information as the results are multi-dimensional.

Subject teachers rapidly gain information about student’s learning preferences, attitudes towards themselves and their lessons, while head teachers benefit from clear parameters of school effectiveness. Local authorities gain clarity on attitudes and aspirations across their locality. Interventions can be rapidly put into place and then monitored. The data can also significantly contribute to the schools self-evaluation form and to school inspection success as part of the current Ofsted framework.

Despite the challenging circumstances of prevalent cuts and strained budgets, the schools that continue to drive forward achievement and raise standards will be those who have identified any areas of weakness and have put strategies in place to improve these. Having a yardstick to measure attitudes could just be the missing piece of the puzzle.

Dr Glen Williams is the Chief Executive Officer of W3 Insights, providers of P.A.S.S. (Pupils Attitudes to Self & School) – an award-winning psychometric measurement of student attitudes.